This season’s latest installment of the Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival was titled “Chamber Music Dressed Down,” and although the atmosphere and venue was more intimate and perhaps less formal, the music was anything but. Led by artistic director Ara Gregorian, this festival sponsored by East Carolina University is in its 17th season. The purpose and theme of this program, as explained by Gregorian, was to present chamber music literature that explored virtuosity and dialogue between soloistic instruments when put together. Therefore, there was no single piece or movement on this program that did not include intense virtuosity, both technically and artistically. The four musicians on this program – Gregorian, fellow ECU violin professor Hye-Jin Kim, Finnish violinist Elina Vähälä, and cellist Amit Peled of the Peabody Conservatory – played with such obvious and effortless virtuosity that much of the music seemed to be created naturally and on the spot.

Another element that made this concert fantastic was the unique performance space at the Contemporary Art Museum of Raleigh, or CAM. The concert was performed in CAM’s main gallery, which is currently featuring the work of Leonardo Drew. The main piece in the gallery, a wall-to-wall work titled “Number 43X” consists of layered wood, paint, and other media, arranged in a way that is fractured yet cohesive. Combined with chamber music that featured several very independent, solo-like lines put together, the artwork supported even the thematic structures of the music being played.

Kim’s brilliant solo Bach Partita opened the concert and was flawlessly played, with a subtle expression appropriate for Bach; the intense dynamic contrasts and constantly flowing notes characteristic of this music were done well. A performance of underrated composer Bohuslav Martinů’s Three Madrigals for Violin and Viola (H. 313) was a highlight of a program where each performance could be a highlight. Vähälä and Gregorian exchanged phrases with Martinů’s constant back-and-forth texture, even phrases two notes at a time, with an intensity almost like dueling. All three movements contain experimentations with texture, sometimes leaving the musicians very exposed with interesting, dissonant harmonies and unpredictable phrases. Vähälä and Gregorian played as if they were communicating with one another through the music, with a sense of effortlessness that hid the extreme difficulty and density of the music.

The third movement of Kodály’s Serenade for Two Violins and Viola, with the aforementioned pair plus Kim, was full of fireworks and distinctly Hungarian with Kodály’s inclusion of folk songs. Switching gears, the program turned to cellist Peled, with his performance (and demonstration) of the dialogue in the two movements of Györgi Ligeti’s Sonata for Solo Cello. The first movement (Dialogo) represents Ligeti’s own love letter, featuring distinct motifs that imply man and woman. The melodic theme representing love in the first movement is low and lush, played with a necessary amount of vulnerability by Peled. However, as it continues, the first movement becomes more and more tormented and virtuosic, leading into the jarring and stormy second movement (Capriccio). This movement is, in short, crazy. To be able to process these notes and techniques, let alone actually play the music, is a feat in itself. Peled performed this excellently, of course, playing the music naturally as if it was his own train of thought gone off the rails.

The performance of the five movements of Hungarian Ernö Dohnányi’s Serenade for String Trio were varied and lively, and again exemplar of the program’s overall thematic structure. With three virtuosic and somewhat solo-like lines going on at once, the music creates a dense atmosphere that can nearly overwhelm the mind of the listener. With this, the concert was brought to a powerful close.

This performance repeats March 25 in Greenville at The Martinsborough. See our calendar for details.