The Triangle area, and pretty much most of North Carolina, is not unique in the fact that August becomes mostly a dead zone for most arts events. In the midst of this barren cultural landscape comes the Cary Cross Currents Chamber Music Arts Festival (CCCCMAF – longest acronym I’ve ever seen!) to the Town of Cary. Spanning almost the exact dates of a certain sporting event taking place this summer in London, this festival takes place at the renovated Cary Arts Center, a building that boasts its beginnings as the oldest public schoolhouse in the state.

More than just a “let’s get a bunch of seasoned musicians together to play nightly concerts,” the CCCCMAF is an eclectic, comprehensive event that has expanded to include jazz concerts, open rehearsals to the public, outings to local restaurants, and, probably most importantly, a training ground for young local musicians. Add to this the fact that they have snagged the Brussels Chamber Orchestra, the Lipkind String Quartet, and cellist Gavriel Lipkind as artists-in-residence for the entire duration, and you have a music festival that will provide sustenance for music lovers previously gasping for good vibrations during the oppressive month of August.

This concert was a varied presentation and combination of ensembles, some of which were quite magnificent, and others not so much. The opener, La Musica Notturna Delle Strade di Madrid, by the celebrated Italian cellist/composer Luigi Boccherini, was introduced by principal cellist and founder of the Brussels Chamber Orchestra, Mario Villuendas. This was an underwhelming piece and might qualify as an example of “fluff’ in a music dictionary. It featured an offstage percussionist on snare drum and bells to somewhat militarize the piece. There are countless examples of truly great music by the underrated Boccherini, and, although played with great precision, this did little to boost the composer’s reputation.

Because of the love of great works of music there has always been a practice of transcribing/arranging/adapting the original instrumentation – for many reasons. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. Unfortunately, the first of several of these heard on this program was the latter. Claude Debussy’s cello sonata is one of the gems of the instrument’s repertoire and is one of the rare examples of cellists being able to good-naturedly sneer at violinists for this great composer not having written a violin sonata (the same goes for Rachmaninoff and Chopin). This performance was Mr. Villuendas’ arrangement of the original cello/piano score for cello and strings. Yes, it’s certainly subjective, but this simply does not work and seems to tear apart the symbiotic original piano/cello relationship. The cellist, and featured soloist of the entire festival, was Israeli-born Gavriel Lipkind. He uses a rather odd chair, the likes of which I have never seen, that is very low and gives him the appearance of performing from a small child’s seat.

We next go to the other extreme of effectiveness of transcriptions, as that other famous French composer Maurice Ravel gets his chance for having his composition altered. Deux Melodies Hebraiques are two songs written for orchestra and later adapted for violin and piano. This transcription of the first song, “Kaddish” (a Jewish prayer for the dead) was for solo cello and strings, this time joined by the Side-by-Side Workshop Chamber Orchestra. The almost static sustained chords accompanying the soloist made this a perfect example of a great transcription. Lipkind’s playing was evocative, mournful and stunning in its quiet power. Among his many talents was his ability to shade his vibrato with varying widths and speed to enhance the mystical quality of this work. I just wish he’d be able to tamp down a bit his extraneous vocal utterances while playing. 

The festival students got their opportunity to shine as a solo ensemble when they performed a string ensemble rendition of Shostakovich’s Elegy and Polka, originally from his Two Pieces for String Quartet. They seemed a bit nervous and unable to get over that enough to just enjoy making music. However, for the most part they played with great skill, especially the Polka section which involved some difficult, rapid pizzicati.

The second half was entirely taken up with what is arguably the greatest composition for strings: Serenade for Strings in C Major by Tchaikovsky. All members of the professional Brussels Chamber Orchestra were combined with their Side-by-Side Workshop Orchestra students in this magnificent work that exemplifies every facet of Tchaikovsky’s greatness. Having experienced this myself, you can just feel the positive pull of the seasoned professionals on their festival students as I heard very few weak links and they played far beyond how they did alone in the Shostakovich. It wasn’t only all the notes played in tune and at the right time, which in this piece is hard enough, but a sense of true communication among the sections and an abandonment to the music without being anchored to the part.