Hickory is a small city with a rich arts scene, graced by its own orchestra – the Western Piedmont Symphony, conducted by John Gordon Ross – and one of the best choirs in the state – the Hickory Choral Society, directed by J. Donald Coleman (whose performances have figured in several telecasts on WUNC-TV). The Catawba County town enjoys several advantages over, say, Raleigh, starting with the fact that it isn’t, well, Raleigh. There’s also not too much going on there, so what is done tends to be well supported by the public. And there have been some remarkable happenings there, over the years. For example, Hickory hosted J. Mark Scearce’s Meet the Composer residency, becoming in the process the smallest town in the country to have done such a thing. And long before that three-year hitch, Ross had been championing new music at the WPS. The orchestra has also done other smart things, including engaging string quartets to play in the community and to head the orchestra’s string sections. The incumbent group, the Degas Quartet, is the second resident ensemble, following in the wake of the Fry Street Quartet. The Degas’ players – violinists James Dickenson and Tamaki Higashi, violist Simon Értz, and cellist Philip von Maltzahn – gave their final concert of the current season on March 27 in the attractive and acoustically appealing auditorium of the Catawba Valley Arts and Science Center, another of the remarkable Hickory projects: it was formerly Hickory High School. The group will stay on for at least one more season.

Following welcoming remarks by Maestro Ross, the program began with Mendelssohn’s lovely Capriccio in E Minor, No. 3 of four movements for quartet published as Op. 81. This was listed second in the program, after Haydn’s “Sunrise” Quartet (the press releases had the correct order of performance), and some listeners may have been a bit confused at the outset – a person near me whispered “That’s not the Haydn!” No, it wasn’t, but it was quite magical, reflecting the sure hand of a master composer for strings. There were excellent program notes on the piece, which ends with a complex fugue, Mendelssohn having been very much in the thrall of Bach, the revival of whose music he led in the 19th century. (For some reason, the notes also encompassed Mendelssohn’s Op. 44/1, prompting several in attendance to wish the Degas had played it, too.)

The Haydn received a radiant reading in keeping with its nickname. The sound produced by the quartet and its sense of ensemble were exceptionally fine, and all the lines were distinctly audible during the frequent occasions when the score demands such clarity. It was a delight to savor the superior cello playing of von Maltzahn, the sweet, soaring and invariably secure top lines, played by Dickenson, and the strong inner voices, provided by Higashi and Értz, in such a comfortable and congenial room. This is a wonderful young ensemble, typical of many such quartets scattered around the country in places one wouldn’t automatically think would support chamber music. The presence of this ensemble reflects favorably on Hickory and continues its long-standing tradition of cultural excellence.

The second half was devoted to a bracing reading of Schumann’s Piano Quintet. The small Yamaha grand was played with great skill and keen partnership by Allen Kindt, Professor Emeritus of Piano at Appalachian State University. We regret not having heard this fine keyboard artist previously. He’s played around a lot, and his name has appeared in CVNC’s series tabs and calendars from time to time. His bio reveals his considerable background, which includes study with Sandor and Walter Hautzig and a host of other distinguished artists. He worked admirably with the younger quartet players, watching and listening intently, and the overall performance was a model of outstanding chamber music. We look forward to hearing Kindt again, with orchestra or in solo programs, and of course the Degas Quartet will be worth another trip to Hickory when they resume playing there again next season. Meanwhile, readers may check our calendar for the WPS’ last concert, scheduled for April 3. It will feature the cellist of the Fry Street Quartet in Elgar’s Concerto and, as previously noted, the Degas Quartet serves as the orchestra’s string principals.