A superb evening of chamber music launched the 2009 Eastern Music Festival, a five-week event that brings together teenage students, a celebrated faculty, and world-renowned artists for the sole purpose of making great music. Three very different works made up this first program in the Recital Hall of UNCG School of Music; Brahms’ first Violin Sonata, Ravel’s Sonata for violin and cello, and Dvorak’s beloved “American” String Quartet.

EMF concertmaster Jeffrey Multer and Chair of the EMF piano faculty James Giles turned in a heart-felt, moving performance of Brahms’ three-movement work in G. William R. Trotter’s program notes rightly calls the work “radiantly lyrical.” Indeed, the first movement is somewhat elegiac, with an emotional undercurrent that threatens to boil over into hysteria. But this is Brahms, not Franck. So, instead we are treated to brilliant climaxes. Multer and Giles brought those magic moments to the fore in wonderful ensemble.

Multer displayed an amazing number of timbres — from fine melodic threads to beefy, romantic lushness. The double and triple stops in the middle movement were perfectly in tune and warm, but it was not the technical aspects of his playing that impressed, rather it was his commitment to the music and his connection to conveying that commitment to the audience that was most striking.

Giles provided solid collaboration, bringing out important melodic statements artistically. Unfortunately, the Steinway piano upon which Giles played did not help him create the colors that could have been elicited from a better instrument.

Ravel’s four-movement Sonata, written in the early 1920s, still sounds remarkably modern. Although this quintessential French composer is not especially known for his use of folk music, this work is imbued with dance rhythms and jazzy riffs. One can hear both Bartók and Stravinsky in several passages. One might expect, given the limited resources of only two string instruments, that the music would be limited in expressive ability and color. However, nothing could be further from the truth. EMF assistant concertmaster John Fadial and cellist Beth Vanderborgh breathed life and fire into the score. Oftentimes the music was extremely contrapuntal, with the two instruments intertwining independent melodies, but other times the cello would play an accompanying figure while the violinist took off on a solo, and then the two would “trade licks,” with the violin providing the accompaniment and the cello in the spotlight.

An extraordinary number of “special” effects are called for in the score — strumming chords, pizzicato, harmonics — and all of these were energetically embraced by the two musicians. Intonation by Fadial and Vanderborgh was rock solid, and the interplay between the two was completely winning.

The evening concluded with a lively reading of Dvorak’s String Quartet in F, written in the United States in 1893 (hence the subtitle “American”). Even though the program notes argued against hearing anything specifically “American” in the quartet, I was hard pressed not to hear many of the tunes as deriving from the “New World.” Associate concertmaster Jessica Guideri and Jeffrey Multer (violins) Danielle Farina (viola), and James Wilson (cello) worked together as a tight team to bring out the lively rhythms and great melodies with energy and aplomb.

In some passages these tunes are judiciously distributed throughout the ensemble, such as the opening melody, which is given to the viola, or in the second movement, where the cello gets to sing. But most of the action is initiated by the first violin, and Guideri assertively ignited her fellow musicians to join the festivities. Multer was about the most energetic second violinist I’ve ever seen; Wilson provided a hearty and rich foundation; and Farina supplied a very strong middle voice. In short, it sounded as if all four players were having fun, which completely drew the audience in.

So the EMF is off and running and the musical bar has been set very high indeed. We look forward to the next five weeks and to seeing how high the bar can get. Given this season’s roster of concerts and artists, the sky’s the limit! For details, see our calendar.