The Williamson Center for the Performing Arts was established in 1998 with a gift from Worth and Sarah Williamson, of Charlotte, in memory of his mother, Jewel Edgerton Williamson, a 1923 graduate of Peace College. With their generosity and the support of others, a series featuring members of the NC Symphony and its visiting artists provides a community treasure available to anyone who is interested in classical chamber music. And the most incredible thing is – these concerts are free. For those who enjoy this art form, this is a jewel not to be missed. A March 7 program, given in the Sarah Graham Kenan Recital Hall on the Peace College campus, was the second of three concerts this school year.

The NCS artists were Rebekah Binford, violin, David Marschall and Sandra Schwarcz, violas, Gerald Nelson and Bonnie Thron, cellos, and Leonid Finkelshteyn, bass. They were joined by pianist Milton Laufer of the Peace College faculty and the NCS’s visiting artist, the renowned violinist Elmar Oliveira.

The first selection on the program was Mendelssohn’s Sextet in D, Op. 110, for piano and strings. Despite the high opus number, it was composed when he was barely 15, a year before the Octet for strings and two years before the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Though the Sextet is not on a level with those masterpieces, it is an engaging and gratifying piece of music. The unusual scoring calls for one violin (played by Binford), two violas, a cello and a double bass. The piano part is substantial and demanding, especially in the final movement, and it was impressively performed by Laufer.

In his introduction to the piece, Laufer alluded to the tricky third movement, a Minuetto in 6/8 time rather than the expected 3/4 and, to make matters even more interesting, it is marked “Agitato,” a very unusual indication for a minuet movement. Laufer attested to some difficulties in determining the proper tempo for a “Minuetto, Agitato.” The piano sets the tempo for the movement, and he said that if we saw a smile, we would know he/they got it right. When the third movement came around, then, we all watched. After the full group entered, there was just the hint of satisfaction on Laufer’s face, exceeded by a captivating smile from cellist Thron. It was a wonderful moment of interaction, and the movement itself was an utterly charming and delightful musical treat.

Now back to the first movement, a sonata-form Allegro vivace…. In this movement, Mendelssohn frequently divides the forces into two distinct sonorities as the flowing strings trade passages with the percussive piano. Triplets from the piano provide a rhythmic pulse and take over to power the movement to its close. The second movement, a gentle Adagio, is a relatively brief lyrical interlude, marked “Dolce.” The piano launches the concluding Allegro vivace on its energetic way and is the major player all the way to the end. The minuetto theme returns briefly near the end of the finale before it concludes with a powerful and energetic coda. This fifteen-year-old was no child, and his potential was already in early bloom in the Sextet.

Tchaikovsky’s Sextet in D Minor, Op. 70, known as the “Souvenir de Florence,” was the last of his scant chamber music output, preceded by three string quartets and the A minor Piano Trio. The title comes from the fact that Tchaikovsky had noted down the main theme of the slow movement in Florence in 1887. Whatever Italian influences were behind the score, it is mostly Russian in character, with some gypsy-like touches here and there. Like most Russian music of this period, derived from Glinka’s example, it is rooted in melody, instrumental color, and striking contrasts. Through a variety of instrumental techniques, Tchaikovsky provides a score with nearly orchestral coloring using only six string instruments. Oliveira took the lead, playing the spectacular melodies Tchaikovsky provided for the first violin. His skill and artistry brought pleasure after pleasure to an audience hungry for beauty.

The opening movement is dramatic and richly varied. The middle two movements, somewhat gentler in nature, offer some remarkable instrumental effects. The gorgeous slow movement duet between the violin and first cello was played by Oliveira and Thron. The final movement was high-spirited and energetic from beginning to end, closing with a brilliant coda that brought the audience to its feet. It was an evening of superb music-making providing the kind of intimate pleasure that is special to musica da camera.