Subtle hints of leaves changing colors, football games, the local universities filling up with returning students, hurricanes, and for the past five years the September Prelude Chamber Music Festival of the Triangle – all signs that the fall season is upon us. Jointly sponsored by UNC-Chapel Hill, the William S. Newman Artists Series, Duke Performances, Durham’s Chamber Arts Society, and the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild, this three-day event is a rare opportunity to get to know world-class musicians up close and personal and hear three diverse concerts..

This year’s artist is the Chiara String Quartet, a young and vibrant quartet who at the completion of this festival will travel to the Duke of the north to assume their new appointment as Artists-in-Residence at Harvard University. With an armful of prestigious prizes, residencies and collaborations with established musicians to inflate their pedigree, the Chiara Quartet is a group dedicated to breaking down barriers between performer and audience. While their opening concert of this mini-festival at Memorial Hall on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus is not quite the venue for an alternative performing approach, there was plenty of that to come in subsequent concerts.

Even with threats of Hanna the Hurricane approaching, a fairly good size crowd was present to welcome Rebecca Fischer and Julie Yoon, violins, Jonah Sirota, viola, and Gregory Beaver, cello, to Chapel Hill. They began with “Song of the Ch’in,” an evocative and atmospheric work composed in 1953 by the prolific Chinese-American composer Zhou Long. This is a work that is a perfect example of the blending of Western and Eastern traditional music: it neither panders nor resorts to overused clichés and leaves you wanting more. All of the players had their turns at simulating techniques and effects that gave the impression of traditional Chinese instruments and for a time transcended the “westernness” of this most classic of traditional musical ensembles.

Moving a bit back in time and somewhat closer to the “normal” string quartet, we heard a stirring performance of Sergei Prokofiev’s first string quartet – written in 1931 at the relatively advanced age of forty. An unusual three-movement work ending with an emotional and somber slow movement, this quartet is a masterpiece of the melding of Prokofiev’s unique voice within a decidedly neo-classical framework. The Chiara Quartet displayed their considerable technical expertise and rhythmic precision in the manic second movement that alternates between rich, slow passages and flights of wild abandon. All the players appear to have a similar demeanor and playing style – relaxed, effortlessness and with economical physical expenditure.

The second half was taken up with one of the grandest creations in chamber music: Johannes Brahms’ String Sextet No. 1. Although a relatively early work, this is Brahms at his greatest and we are grateful that he didn’t include this in one of his youthful music-burning episodes. Joining the Chiara Quartet were Anton Jivaev and Bonnie Thron, principal viola and cello, respectively, of the North Carolina Symphony. As is the protocol in these situations, the guest artists took over the second part for their instruments – although there is certainly no such thing as an easy or uninteresting part when it comes to Brahms. The lush and expansive opening movement created a wall of sound that was practically visible. This is the longest movement by far and there could have been a bit more forward propulsion as it became somewhat stagnant at times. The andante movement is a theme and variations gem – one of Brahms’ favorite forms. The violists get a chance here to really shine and Chiara’s Jonah Sirota, especially, displayed his ravishing tone and projection. In the scherzo there is a chance to lighten up a bit and for all six players to showcase their perfectly synchronized trills.

This was a wonderful, although outwardly traditional concert. It was the next evening’s concert at Duke which really showcased their maverick chamber music philosophy. Stay tuned for that.