A mostly Slavic program opened the new Cross Currents Chamber Music Arts Festival at the Fletcher Opera Theatre with the Brussels Chamber Orchestra, including the young Raleigh native Neil Leiter on viola. The BCO is a group of twelve strings (four first violins, three second violins, two violas, two cellos, contrabass) led from the leader’s stand, and the group performed standing up (cellos excepted).

A very attractive (and certainly little-known) set of Variations on a theme of Tchaikovsky, op. 35a, by Anton Arensky (1861-1906) painted a very bleak, desolate, wintry picture for listeners – given its date of composition (1894, as the slow movement of his string quartet), it seems likely that it was intended as a memorial elegy for Tchaikovsky, who died at the end of the previous year. The BCO played with a hushed tone, senza vibrato.

Israeli cello soloist Gavriel Lipkind (b.1977) joined the group for the Schumann Cello Concerto Op. 129. If there is a divide between masters who play angelically, and those who play like the devil, Lipkind is definitely on the infernal side of the line, with dark eyes and a huge mop of unruly hair which frequently descended over his face. He plays with considerable expression, plenty of variation in dynamics, but so much so as to leave behind, on occasion, attention to intonation. Schumann’s original score included a full complement of winds – flutes, clarinets, oboes, bassoon, horns, trumpets and timpani, and your curmudgeonly critic insists that the BCO should have performed the work as the composer intended, or should have left it alone. Perhaps a representation with only strings is better than the usual student performance with piano reduction, but it falls short of being Werktreu. There should be plenty of works to choose from for solo cello and strings.

The Dvorak Serenade Op. 22 in E for strings is a true masterwork, a seemingly effortless effusion of good humor in perfect proportion, and it was warmly offered by the BCO strings, joined by local musicians from the Mallarmé Chamber Players. The program concluded with another symphonic work, the Rococo Variations, op. 33, of Tchaikovsky, again with Lipkind as soloist, and here with a much higher level of pyrotechnics to set off than in the Schumann (given the focus on the virtuosity of the soloist, your curmudgeon scarcely noted the lack of winds). Lipkind was fully equal to the task, and enthusiastic applause brought him back for a lengthy solo cello encore with an Iberian flavor.

Congratulations to the BCO and the festival organizers for an interesting, different and compellingly performed program which augurs well for the future.