This opening concert of the 48th season of the Swannanoa Chamber Music Festival featured the Jasper String Quartet: J Freivogel and Sae Chonabayashi, violins, Sam Quintal on viola and Rachel Henderson Freivogel on cello. The Jasper Quartet came together as students at Oberlin Conservatory, made its name a decade ago winning several major prizes, and is now quartet-in-residence at Temple University when not touring. The four musicians returned this year to the Swannanoa Festival bringing with them new repertoire as well as deep interpretations of the core literature for string quartet.

The program began and ended with pieces from that core literature: works of Mendelssohn and Shostakovich. Between these two anchors came three contemporary pieces that were less familiar but proved pleasing to the audience which two-thirds filled Kittredge Theatre on the Warren Wilson College campus. That 320-seat theater is undergoing renovation, and the new seats and ceiling acoustic panels are welcome improvements.

Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in E minor, Op. 44, No.2 is from the composer’s twenties, when he was establishing himself as an early romantic. The second and fourth movements were especially well delivered by the Jasper. The Scherzo was riveting, and the Presto agitato final movement was given an explosive start leading to declamatory passages from all four instruments, in which the musicians showed an easy familiarity with Mendelssohn’s intentions.

The quartet was then joined by Yousif Sheronik, a talented American percussionist of Lebanese descent who has collaborated with musicians as varied as Philip Glass, Paul Winter and the Lark Quartet in world music. The first selection was “Turceasca,” Romanian wedding dances in the Turkish style by a Romanian Gypsy composer, arranged for percussion and string quartet by Gordon Green. This was followed by Giovanni Sollima‘s Quintet for Percussion and String Quartet, with rhythmic patterns in a Mediterranean style that would have confounded me. I applaud the quartet for having mastered this very non-classical literature, which was a great favorite with the audience.

After intermission came the only work that failed to impress me, a piece by contemporary Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy. His 2007 “Pushpulling” is the kind of composition that gives minimalism a bad name. Being a slave to any one compositional technique is usually limiting and seldom enriching, whether that technique be twelve-tone music or minimalism, counterpoint or diminished major ninths. Dennehy should study how John Adams has incorporated minimalism as one arrow in his quiver of compositional techniques, with a resulting richness to Adams’ music. The Dennehy piece presented boring variations on an uninteresting minimalist tattoo, and when it ended, the audience wasn’t sure if that was all. They had to be cued to clap.

Inessa Zaretsky, the artistic director of the festival, joined the quartet on piano for the final work of the evening: the imposing Piano Quintet in G minor, Op. 57, of Dmitri Shostakovich. This work was composed in 1940, four years after Stalinist censors had condemned Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District, leading him to fear for his very life. He became more cautious in his symphonic work, began writing film music, and confined his most personal feelings to his chamber music, which the authorities didn’t closely monitor. While the names of its five movements (Prelude, Fugue, Scherzo, Intermezzo, Finale) make it sound Neoclassical, this piano quintet is a complex piece using a recurring three-note theme (the first three notes of the minor scale) and is a brilliant example of packaging emotional power in musical form. Each movement ends with a hint of what is to come in the Finale: an affirmation in G major that life will survive. The quintet was grandly conceived, and the musicians executed it grandly. While perhaps not at the level of the legendary recording of the Borodin Quartet with Sviatoslav Richter, the performance was very satisfying. How wonderful it is to hear a masterwork played live.

This concert will be repeated in Waynesville, NC on July 2 and Greenville, SC on July 3. For details of these concerts and the remaining four programs of this year’s Swannanoa Chamber Music Festival, check their website.