Ara Gregorian, founder and artistic director of the Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival, manages to add a new wrinkle to the festival almost every year, and this 16th season is no exception. The popular Next Generation concerts, in which current string students at East Carolina University’s School of Music get to perform with their professors, a guest musician and at least one ECU alumnus, added a new type of guest musician to the first of two concerts this season – high school students.

Joining the usual groups of musicians were cellist Drew Dansby, a freshman from Charlotte, and violinist Sam Zhu, a sophomore from Cary, both of whom participated in a program at ECU this past summer, the Summer Chamber Music Institute. They sat in with ECU alum Christopher Ferrara (violin) and ECU freshman Erik Wright (viola) on movements from string quartets by Beethoven and Shostakovich. These were not two easy pieces.

The first movement (Allegro con brio) of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 11 in F minor, Op. 95, called “Serioso,” mixes furious playing with more gentle passages that occasionally sounds uncharacteristic of the composer. The movement is relatively brief, but the stark contrasts in dynamics and rhythms might have tripped up players of lesser skills. Not so with this quartet who gave a fine, well-rounded reading. First violinist Ferrara had a lovely tone in the upper registers of the passage.

The same was true for the opening Allegretto movement of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No.3 in F, Op. 73. The piece opens with a lively exposed line in the first violin, which Zhu handled well. The dance-like line returns several times throughout the movement, and in different instrumentation, harmonies and even pitches. Dansby provided good foundation for both pieces, and Wright had an especially fine passage in the Shostakovich.

Other selections on the program were a bit more traditional, and some have been part of regular Four Seasons concerts in the past. The highlight of the evening (out of many highlights) was the first movement (Allegro ma non troppo) from Schubert’s String Quintet in C minor, D. 956 – the last chamber piece Schubert wrote. Scored for the usual quartet lineup plus an extra cello (instead of an extra viola), this piece was most lovely from start to finish and received an outstanding performance from Gregorian and Hye-Jin Kim on violins, ECU alums Micaela Fruend on viola and Cameron Collins on cello, and guest cellist Raman Ramakrishnan. The music often requires fierce intensity, as well as great delicacy, and the contrasts were excellent. The passages that pair the cellos and that were repeated later in passages that pair the violins, were especially fine.

ECU faculty pianist Keiko Sekino added her special touch to movements of piano quintets by Schumann and Brahms. The opening Allegro brilliante movement of the Schumann Quintet in E-flat, Op. 44, featured nice duet passages by ECU faculty cellist Emmanuel Gruber and alumnus violist Jonathan Spence, and the piano playing was top-notch. The fourth movement of the Brahms Quintet in F minor, Op. 34, featured an especially mellow cello sound from Ramakrishnan and a bold closing. The concert also included movements from two well-known string sextets: the Andante, ma moderato movement from Brahms’ String Sextet No. 1 in B-flat, Op. 18, and the Allegro con brio e vivace movement from Tchaikovsky’s Sextet in D minor – the “Souvenir de Florence.” The Brahms sextet contains the familiar theme-and-variations in dense scoring, and Kim and Spence on violins, Gregorian and Fruend on violas, and Gruber and Collins on cellos handled the often somber, often bold contrasts nicely. The Tchaikovsky sextet starts with a lively dance but quickly moves to a beautiful melody and has a wonderful fugue that passes from violins to violas to cellos. The closing is electric and received a bold, energetic performance.

The concert closed with two pieces played by chamber orchestra, both crowd-pleasers: Greig’s Holberg Suite and the opening Andante non troppo-allegro moderato movement from Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings. Nearly 30 musicians crowded the stage at Fletcher Recital Hall, and the full, rich sound they produced was excellent. Especially notable were the duet between Gregorian on violin and ECU Symphony director Jorge Richter on viola, played over pizzicato strings in the fifth Rigaudon section of the Grieg suite, and the great musical foundations established by the cellos and basses in the Tchaikovsky serenade.     

The concert will be repeated Friday, October 16, at 7 p.m. at Greensboro Day School and Sunday, October 18, at 5 p.m. at St. Ann Catholic Church in Charlotte. Information on the performances can be found in the sidebar/