Freshness of expression and variety of programs are two of the many strong points of concerts at impresario John O’Brien’s The Music House in Greenville. Typical of events that are never typical is this excellent performance by Jacco Hermsen*, viola, and Catherine Garner, piano. The music room, the salon, the performance hall in O’Brien’s residence on Fifth Street, seats a maximum audience of about 70 people; there’s no bad seat in the room. There’s no stage and no fourth wall between the players and the audience. In this space Hermsen’s big viola sound was well-balanced to the sound of Garner, playing the resident Steinway grand.

Hermsen, born in the Netherlands, has degrees from the Conservatory of Amsterdam, the Royal Conservatory of The Hague, and the Hochschule für Musik Carl Maria von Weber in Dresden. He plays in the Robert Schumann Philharmonic in Chemnitz (Saxony), the Mittelsächsische Philharmonie Freiburg, the Klangnetz Ensemble Dresden, the Kammerphilharmonie Dresden, and the Amsterdam Symphony Orchestra.

Garner holds a DMA from the Eastman School of Music, MM from Florida State and Bachelor in Music in piano from Louisiana State University. She is currently on the faculty at ECU; she is also the founder and director of Music on a WIM (Women’s Initiative Music Series**).

(The program as planned was also to feature Catherine B. Kelly, soprano, MM James Madison University 2014. Kelly was unable to perform because of a bad cold.)

Our European tour began in Romania with the Concertpiece of 1906 by George Enescu opening the program. The florid piano part pairs well with the demanding double-stopped and wide-ranging viola part, with its one clever pizzicato arpeggio.

Next to France and Maurice Ravel’s “Pavane pour une infante défunte,” here arranged very effectively for viola and piano. The melody, haunting enough on the piano, is even more insinuating on the viola; it left me and my companions with a serious earworm that we enjoyed and laughed about over supper after the concert. Hermsen’s ability to coax the richest of sounds out of the lowest register of his instrument was nothing short of magic.

Across the Channel, we were treated to the “Pensiero” (1905) from Two Pieces by Frank Bridge, a violist himself. This was just what the name suggests, with emotional and meditative playing from both Hermsens and Garner. Paired with the “Pensiero” was the Allegro Appassionato, composed two or three years later, but very well matched. This big fiery piece was a delight from the hands of the duo.

Austria next, with a Fantasy by Johann Nepomuk Hummel. The delicious fat sounds of the viola complimented the strong harmonic structure of this, the oldest composition on the program. The balance between viola and piano was effective; Garner played the exciting piano interlude with strong rhythmic drive; the music was clearly going somewhere, not plodding along.

After intermission the tour proceeded to Russia and Mikhail Glinka’s Viola Sonata in D minor, another excellent Hermsens/Garner pairing. Hermsens made the lovely major passages within the minor framework sing; there was some slight loss when the big piano occasionally overwhelmed a pizzicato phrase.

Back westward across Europe now, to Switzerland and Ernest Bloch’s Meditation and Processional. Hermsens was very precise in his playing of the very disjointed melody of the “Meditation,” but the piano entry perfectly pulled out Bloch’s musical intentions. The well-played “Processional” showed just what a strange understanding of a processional Bloch had.

Eastward again to Poland and Franz Liszt’s “Romance oubliée.” Hermsen’s deliberately controlled and minimal vibrato made the times he used vibrato especially effective.

Lest Germany be neglected, the program closed with a fiery rendition of Franz Liszt’s Scherzo.

Surprisingly, this solid program of viola and piano was varied, refreshing, and easy to hear. Garner had a restrained touch on what might otherwise have been an overpowering piano, a commendable light touch much harder to achieve than a thunderous one. Hermsen is a master of this varied and demanding repertoire; without seeming to force himself or the instrument, he handled every piece with musical aplomb.

*A bio – in Dutch – is here.

**WIM offers mid-day programs, three of which are coming up this spring; for details, see our calendar.

Note: Ravel himself plays the “Pavane” in a 1922 piano roll here.