The breadth and depth of the professional musicians of the Eastern Music Festival are featured in the chamber music series held in Starmount Presbyterian Church on Tuesday nights. This opening program gave a broad sampling of the faculty ranging from the brass, multiple strings, and a pianist. The presence of guest artist Robert Vernon brought the underappreciated viola into the limelight.

The modern brass quintet owes a great debt to Russian composer Viktor Ewald (1860-1935). An amazing number of important creators of the Russian national style were dilettante musicians who plied wholly different occupations. Besides being an important civil engineering professor in his native St. Petersburg, Ewald was a cellist in the pioneering Beliaeff String Quartet, a collector of Russian folksongs, and a composer mainly for conical brass instruments. His four quintets were long regarded the first for an ensemble close to the modern brass quintet. Recent research has turned up a dozen four-movement quintets composed in the 1840s by Jean Francois Bellon (1795-1869), a leader in the Paris Opera. Since these were little known, Ewald’s importance is undiminished and his four quintets are almost the only extended original brass quintets in the Romantic style.

I verified program note author Steven Ledbetter’s assertion about Ewald’s neglect in references. His name is only listed in the article on brass quintets in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians! The Wikipedia article on Ewald has an extended discussion on the evolution of brass instruments into the modern quintet and about the practical, not ur-text, Canadian Brass edition which the EMF players probably used for Quintet No. 2 in E-flat, Op. 6. The work consists of two allegro movements sandwiching an extended set of Theme and variations. Trumpeters Chris Gekker and Judith Saxton were joined by horn player Kelly Hofman, trombonist Michael Kris, and Dennis Nutty on tuba. The ensemble played with fine tone, nicely judged dynamics, and precise attacks and releases. There were no flubbed notes or watery build ups. Plenty of plumbing work between movements kept that problem well at bay! Ewald gave each player moments to shine as well as duo opportunities in the first movement. The strongly contrasted middle variation movement was the most immediately rewarding while the finale gave a rousing conclusion.

Polish composer Henryk Górecki (1933-2010) was one of the most important composers of the last half of the twentieth century. He studied with Messiaen in Paris besides his studies at the Katowice Conservatory. His earlier works were in a post-Webern style but as he found his voice he drew upon Poland’s musical past and its deep relationship with the Catholic Church, a source of hope during the iron rule of communism. Ledbetter’s program note gave ample background about Górecki but was barely generic about his String Quartet No. 1, Op. 62, Already It Is Dusk.” It was commissioned in 1988 and premiered in 1989 by the Kronos String Quartet. It is played in one continuous movement divided into “Deciso; Molto lento – Tranquillo; Allegro deciso – Gridano; Martellando – Tempestoso; Molto lento – Tranquillissimo. My initial notes drew attention to a repeated chant-like figure and to some of the string playing as being suggestive of a folk ensemble. David Drew’s program note for the Nonesuch recording by the Kronos Quartet reports the titles comes from “the opening words of a four-part church-song by the 16th-century Polish composer Waclaw z Szamotul” and “an extended version of the entire tenor melody is both the basis of the opening Molto lento and the source of everything that follows.” Noteworthy in the Molto lento section is the presentation of the original melody “by the viola as cantus firmus in a ‘retrograde-inverse’ canon whose highly dissonant (polymodal) counterpoint” is striking; these “canonic supplications are interrupted three times by fierce chordal interjections based on the underlying cluster harmony.” The Allegro deciso section can be heard as a stylization of wild dance music from the Tatra Mountains region where folk ensembles play them with three fiddles and a cello. Much of the work consists of sonic layers such as this folk-like episode haunted or underpinned by the original church-song melody constantly shifted between players.

The string players for Górecki’s Quartet No. 1 were violinists Uli Speth and Lucas Guideri, violist Diane Phoenix-Neal, and cellist Hannah Holman. The ensemble was very well prepared for this challenging piece. Balance and ensemble were well-judged with the instruments blending well or strongly contrasted as was appropriate. The violins’ high notes were immaculate, and Phoenix-Neal’s viola was rich and sumptuous in its prominent solo lines.

An unlisted selection opened the program after intermission. The third movement “Menuetto: Allegro molto” from the Trio for Two Oboes and English Horn, Op. 87 by Beethoven in an arrangement for three violas most likely by the great English violist Lionel Tertis. The high opus number belies the piece as the work of the 25 year-old composer. It was one of a number of unpublished pieces the composer pulled out for publication during tight money times in the early 1800s. The third movement is almost a genuine scherzo. While closely adhering to the styles of Haydn and Mozart it bears Beethoven’s distinctive muscular style as it skips merrily along at a fast clip. Guest violist Robert Vernon was joined by principal violist Daniel Reinker and assistant principal violist Mara Gearman and they played it with great panache and an exuberant sense of fun.

This has been Gabriel Fauré’s year in the Piedmont of North Carolina with performances in the Triangle (Duke) and Triad. UNCG’s Focus on the Piano featured the composer in depth and also featured the EMF’s selection, the delightful Piano Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Op. 15. The first movement is in sonata form but is lyric rather than dramatic. The second movement is an enchanting Scherzo that toys between 2/4 and 6/8 time. A haunting middle section features muted strings supporting a sparkling piano part. All of Fauré’s strengths are on restrained display in the magnificent Adagio. In the fourth movement the rhythm from the first movement is set against the melody from the third movement before building to a climax and a brilliant ending.

The EMF players were violinist Jenny Gregoire, guest violist Robert Vernon, cellist Amy Frost Baumgarten, and pianist Gideon Rubin. Ensemble and balance were excellent as the musicians played as if they had long experience as a team, not just a few rehearsals. Intonation and phrasing were superb. The keyboard versus strings balance is difficult in this work and Rubin was very successful in his dynamic choices. There are some glorious melodies for the viola in this piece and Vernon produced a full, rich tone that gave full measure to Fauré. Bravo!