Now in its 19th season, the Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival is bringing a great variety of esteemed musicians to North Carolina for the purpose of educating and inspiring with quality classical concerts, workshops, and outreach initiatives. This concert season features over forty-five concerts, including a Chamber Music Dressed Down series. This series features increased discussion during the program and a greater opportunity to connect personally with the artists before and after the performances.

To open the second concert of this series, presented in Smedes-Emory Parlor at St. Mary’s School. Artistic Director Ara Gregorian discussed the two composers on the program: Dvořák and Brahms. Gregorian talked about Dvořák’s and Brahms’ relationship, mentioning how Dvořák had once entered a contest of which Brahms was an adjudicator. Brahms was impressed by Dvořák’s compositions, selecting him the winner of the competition. This led to a relationship in which Brahms became a mentor of sorts to Dvořák, hence the title of the program, Brahms the Mentor. Gregorian pointed out that both pieces on the program were written in the year 1875. Pairing these two pieces together highlighted the similarities and differences between the two composers and allowed one to imagine their relationship.

Gregorian’s speech made another point: that despite being two of the most adored and idolized composers in history, Dvořák and Brahms were both still human beings. They had relationships, experiences, and emotions that are common to the human condition. This is, in fact, part of what makes these two composers’ music so powerful and emotionally evocative, according to Gregorian. Indeed, the following performances of Dvořák’s Piano Quartet No. 1 in D Major, Op. 23, and Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 60, were clearly impactful to the audience. The impact was due to the genius of the composers, Gregorian’s engaging description, and the awe-inspiring skill of the musicians — Robert McDonald, piano; Ara Gregorian, viola then violin; Daniel Phillips, violin then viola; and Marcy Rosen, cello.

The first movement of Dvořák’s Piano Quartet No. 1 opens with a simple melody, characteristic of Dvořák’s style at that time, played first by the cello. Rosen gripped listener’s hearts from the start with her remarkably warm and tender tone. The melody then passed to the violin and finally the piano, which brought to focus the conversational quality of Dvořák’s quartets — a quality that this ensemble portrayed excellently. It was as if the individuals were speaking to each other and music was the language. Despite the conversation having no words, the musicians made their meaning clear with sensitive changes of dynamic, dramatic variances in tonal color and with expressive body language. The audience clearly understood the language the musicians spoke; people leaned forward in their chairs as the melody increased in passion and turbulence. The thrilling conclusion to the first movement, which features fortissimo syncopation in the piano part (boldly played by McDonald), brought excited smiles to many faces.

The emotional journey continued with the start of the second movement, the theme and variations. Phillips played the violin solo that opens tthis section with a rich and gentle tone that perfectly captured the sensation of longing that colors the second movement. Philips should also be commended for maintaining this lovely tonal clarity despite the high register of the second movement — a breathtaking accomplishment on his part. The other musicians too played beautifully, their balance stunning. Dynamic changes were done so smoothly and articulately that one could not help but be pulled into the movement’s expressed longing and passion.

Similarly, one could not stop his or her soul from dancing along to the scherzando that Dvořák ingeniously incorporates into the final movement. Dvořák’s use of triple meter, and his apparent awareness of the physical reaction it invokes, is yet another way that Dvořák engages listeners in the story his music tells. The quartet transformed the black, stationary notes on the page into a lively and colorful dance, deftly portraying the twists and turns that this inventive movement takes. Never once did their energy fade and not for a minute was the audience’s attention lost. On the contrary — the second the final note of the piece faded to silence, enthusiastic and extended applause filled the room.

After a brief intermission, Ara Gregorian transitioned the program with continued discussion of the composers and their repertoire. He described Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 3 as plunging readers into very soul of the great composer himself. The ensemble of talented musicians succeeded in pulling listeners into the whirlpool of emotions constitute this quartet.

The piano sets the opening tone of emptiness with notes that hang heavily in the air, soon joined by a somber, breath-like melody played by the strings. Gregorian, Phillips, and Rosen perfectly captured the dark tone of this opening, widening their vibrato and removing any trace of the lilt that had colored the Dvořák quartet. This opening is followed by an outburst of emotion and then by a lovely, lyrical passage that contrasts with the heart-wrenching anguish and bitterness surrounding it. The performers conveyed the array of emotions genuinely and soulfully. The angry energy in the second movement was expressed in the form of stunningly powerful fortes and appropriately aggressive bow and key strokes. The mood changes again in the third movement, which opens with an absolutely gorgeous cello solo. Rosen’s rich vibrato and smooth tone made it clear to listeners that the topic of the solo was love. As the melody blossomed, listeners clung with hope to the glorious love song, making it all the more painful when the bitter turmoil returned at the start of the Finale. The musicians did an excellent job building the energy of the final movement all the way to the abrupt and tragic concluding notes. Despite having just endured an emotionally exhausting journey, the audience rose to their feet in an immediate standing ovation.

It was clear from the long-lasting applause that the performance had truly made an impact on all in attendance. The clever pairing of repertoire, the musicians’ stunning performance, the dramatic décor of the Smedes-Emory Parlor, and Gregorian’s vivid descriptions created an intense bond between the listeners and the music. By creating a program that highlighted the humanity in Dvořák’s and Brahms’ compositions, Gregorian made it possible for listeners to experience the music on a more personal level, thus accomplishing the goal of the “Chamber Music Dressed Down” series. In keeping with the second goal of the series, a reception followed the concert in which the guests and performers had the opportunity to discuss the incredible experience they had all shared.

The next concert in Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival is called Thrilling Season Finale, the Raleigh installment of which will take place on Sunday, March 31, at 3:00 PM at Hayes Barton United Methodist Church. If Brahms the Mentor is any indicator, you will want not to miss the upcoming program. For details, click here.