The Eastern Music Festival kicked off its 61st season Tuesday night in Dana Auditorium on the campus of Guilford College. The nice-sized audience was treated to what has become the standard chamber repertoire for the Tuesday night series: music that features traditional pieces along with ones less frequently heard; this evening, works from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries were on tap. (For the record, the 6th Annual Chamber Crawl took place on Saturday, June 18, featuring the opportunity “to listen to various ensembles, and eat and drink from local venues” in Downtown Greensboro.)

EMF Executive Director Chris Williams welcomed folks, then turned over the mic to Julian Schwarz, Associate Principal cellist of the EMF Artist Faculty and program director for the Tuesday evening chamber music series. Schwarz offered his welcome as well and introduced the upcoming pieces, which included pointing out that a few of the scheduled musicians had substitutes because of Covid complications.

The light and bouncy Flute Quartet in D, K.285 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) was a nice appetizer for the full meal that was to be served up later. Written by the composer when he was 21 years old, this three-movement work featured the buoyant playing of Jake Fridkis (flute), Adelya Nartadjieva (violin), Dan Reinker (viola) and Michael Daniel (cello).

The nimble fingers of Fridkis were front and center for most of the 15-minute piece. While the composition doesn’t put any excessive demands on the audience, it is a delight for the listener and player as well. A youthful optimistic tone is set in the first and third movements. The middle expressive movement featured the flute accompanied by plucked strings. This was all played expressively with the help of some tasteful rubato. The perky finale brought the work to a cheerful close.

The Phantasy Quartet for Oboe and String Trio, Op. 2 by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) couldn’t have contrasted more. This single-movement work featured Karen Birch Blundell (oboe), Courtney LeBauer (violin), Jamie Hofman (viola) and Marta Simidtchieva (cello) and was written when Britten was 18.

The work begins with a somewhat hesitant, unsure rhythm (described in the literature as “ethereal, magical, or spooky”) played very mysteriously on the fingerboard by Simidchieva. The viola and violin eventually join in, picking up the motives presented by the cellist, and one gets the sense of a march as the oboe enters with the “main tune.” This quirky character continues throughout the entire work. All four instruments share the music material more or less equally.

The four musicians took the upmost care to shape the work with sharp-edged rhythms and close attention to each other. Blundell, for her part, effortlessly spun out long oboe lines. The audience was impressed with the quartet’s dedication to a thorny work that is seldom heard.

After intermission, the “meat and potatoes” of the concert was dished out: the Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34 by Johannes Brahms (1833-97). This is a large, long work, full of drama, sometimes tragic, sometimes demonic. The work was masterfully played by John Fadial (violin), Jenny Grégoire (violin), Ben Geller (viola), Neal Cary (cello) and Santiago Rodriguez (piano); the latter is a new addition to the EMF faculty.

All four movements were played with commitment and passion from the entire ensemble. The fast movements were played really fast, lending an unbridled energy. I don’t think I have ever heard the first movement played as fast as Tuesday night! There was nothing timid about this playing. However, the brisk clips were not so fast that there was any sloppiness or lack of ensemble.

The movement’s opening unison was powerfully played, perhaps most prominently by pianist Rodriguez, whose playing seemed to be front and center throughout the performance. Perhaps his playing was too strong, sometimes overshadowing the other players; or perhaps the others did not play out enough. One often couldn’t hear the gorgeous individual string lines with as much clarity as could be wished. Following the unison introduction is a wonderful exploration of themes, somewhat shared by all the instruments.

The slow second movement provides a good contrast to the tension emanating from the other movements. This calm interlude presents gorgeous melodies that incorporate giant swells and contractions, expressively played by the quintet.

The scherzo third movement features wonderful syncopation and was played with grandiose energy, sometimes approaching hysteria. The finale begins with a soul-searching slow introduction. Following are numerous themes, including the unison heard in the first movement. The movement ends with an outburst of blistering furor. The audience leapt to its feet, rewarding the musicians with warm applause for a stirring performance of this Brahms gem, which has been called “the crown of his chamber music.”

So, the 61st season of the EMF is off and running – the first fully programmed five weeks of performances in three years, because of Covid. What a joy it is to return to Dana Auditorium and revel in the magnificent music making of these great musicians and their students.