Nearly seven hours and various groupings of nearly 30 players later, the inaugural Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival Winter Workshop concluded. It was a long concert – two parts spread over two days – but oh, my, it was worth it.

Ara Gregorian, founder and artistic director of the festival, said that he had wanted to do something like this for several years (the festival is in its 15th season), and that the event met and likely exceeded his expectations. One would have little to quarrel about that assessment, based on the thrilling music that came from the stage of Fletcher Recital Hall at East Carolina University. What he presented were 19 musicians, either undergraduate students or graduate students or recently graduated students, who made up duos, trios, quartets, quintets and sextets to play pieces mostly from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Many were generally unknown to Four Seasons audiences. A few of the participants have North Carolina connections, but most were newcomers. They came for a week to the ECU School of Music to study and play music, and the two-part concert was the culmination of their stay here. Gregorian augmented the workshop participants with four ECU music faculty members and four guest musicians, at least two of whom were quite familiar to festival audiences.

And then he put everyone on display. The opening concert Friday evening, January 9, lasted about three hours; the second concert Saturday afternoon-into-evening, January 10, was about four hours.

But don’t roll the eyeballs.

The music played before a full house each session was consistently of the highest quality, some of it even spectacular.

Trying to mention all 16 compositions (generally two movements of larger chamber works) won’t do, nor will mentioning all 19 visiting participants. The ECU faculty members, in addition to Gregorian on violin and viola, were violinist Hye-Jin Kim, cellist Emanuel Gruber,and pianist Keiko Sekino. The visiting guest performers were pianist Robert McDonald, cellist Amit Peled, violinist David Bowlin,and violist Nicholas Cords.

Some of the music played, however, was quite memorable and worth mentioning, and especially fine moments were compositions by Johannes Brahms:

  • The Friday program opener, two movements from Schubert’s Piano Trio in B-flat, D. 898, a thoroughly lovely composition highlighted by pianist Emely Phelps’ sparkling solos and her accompaniment for Bowlin and cellist Mark Yee.
  • Two movements of Rachmaninoff’s Sonata in G-minor, Op. 19, for cello and piano, featuring Peled’s muscular playing and pianist Julia Hamos’ active lines, particularly long ascending runs.
  • Two movements of Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in D-minor, Op. 49, with lovely piano work by Sahun Hong and passionate playing from Gregorian and Gruber.
  • A two-piano version of Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56, played with great energy and passion by Ms. Sekino and Brian Lin.
  • Two movements of Brahms’ String Sextet No. 1 in B-flat, Op. 18, featuring Andy Liang, Bowlin, Gregorian, Ms. Ho, Yee and cellist Matthew Kufchak.

Among the 19 workshop participants was a Texas-based string quartet, the Cordova Quartet, and they acquitted themselves quite nicely as an ensemble on two movements from Beethoven’s String Quartet in C, Op. 59, No. 3, and individually as part of other ensembles on other compositions.

By the time a quintet of players finished the second concert with a rousing reading of Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E-flat, Op. 44, a good number of the audience members had left, and they missed one of the better performances, as played by pianist Lin, violinist Niccolo Muti, Ms. Kim, violist Mengwen Zhao and Gruber.

As a group, the five pianists were perhaps the most impressive of the 19 participants, but the three sets of string players were not far behind. All players showed great skill and talent, obvious sound training, and a passion for their music. And with luck, some of these young people (age range: 18 to 28) might return to Greenville to perform during a regular Four Seasons concert in the future — perhaps in a program that doesn’t last quite as long.