One great music festival after another – it must be summer in North Carolina! Our humble state is home to some very fine gatherings, including the world-class Eastern Music Festival and Brevard Music Center Festival. Hosting the same caliber of musicians on a smaller scale is the Swannanoa Chamber Music Festival, now in its 45th year. Sponsored by Warren Wilson College and directed by pianist and composer Inessa Zaretsky, SCMF is a month-long pan-Carolinian event bringing stellar ensembles and soloists to venues in the Western Carolinas. For the final weekend of concerts in their 2015 series, SCMF gave us Philadelphia’s Jasper String Quartet.

It’s difficult to overestimate this ensemble’s abilities. Their biography, somewhat hyperbolically, places them :at the forefront of a Golden Age in American chamber music.” This description is only mildly extravagant. Jasper is young, dynamic, and razor-sharp. Should you be fortunate enough to hear them live (and by all means, seize that opportunity), you’ll hear some of the finest chamber musicianship in the world.

Jasper titled their SCMF performance “The Great Masters.” No fooling around here. The quartet went straight to the source with masterpieces by Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Schubert.

First, some general considerations:

Examining the printed booklet before the concert, I was suspicious of a nearly two-hour program focusing exclusively on early Romantic chamber works. By the end, I was astonished at the variety of colors, textures, and expressive moods in this seemingly homogeneous music.

Much of this variety is, of course, compositional: despite their geographic and temporal unity, these are three very different composers. Busy professional musicians always have the option of practicing until they can play the notes, leaning on well-worn performance practices and letting the composers’ innate differences shine through. 
That is not Jasper’s way of working. It’s clear that this ensemble approaches each piece in their repertoire with an exhaustive and detailed individual treatment.

To open their program, Jasper gave us the jolly and compact String Quartet No. 2 of Beethoven. Cellist Rachel Henderson Freivogel noted in her introduction that this piece is nicknamed the “Compliments Quartet” for its graceful gestures. Indeed, the musicians summoned their kindest manners, bowing and curtsying their way through this most classical of Beethoven’s quartets.

Sitting in for regular second violinist Sae Chonabayashi was Karen Kim. Her elegant exchanges with first violinist J. Freivogel would convince anyone that she’s a full-time member of Jasper.

The Beethoven also illustrated the evening’s one problematic element: First United Methodist Church in Waynesville is not an ideal venue for chamber music. The chancel floor is stone tile, and shiny vinyl covers the sanctuary. All these hard surfaces create a perfect environment for organ and choir music, but the quartet got lost in the lush acoustic. Even from my seat in the front row, the nuance and articulation during fast passages receded into a smoky web of reverberation. But over the course of the evening, my ear grew accustomed to the resonance and I was able, with effort, to focus in on the smaller details.

Violist Sam Quintal introduced the evening’s second masterpiece, Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in F minor, op. 80. As noted by Quintal, Mendelssohn dedicated this last quartet to his sister Fanny, who had died just a few months prior.

This quartet is characterized by stormy, anguished gestures collapsing into resigned cadences. Moments of hope and nobility inevitably give way to grief and lamentation. In place of the Beethoven’s reserve and gentle manners, the quartet played with wild passion. The dynamic range was much larger, with distant pianissimos and tortured, explosive climaxes. In this genre, Beethoven is the better-known composer; but Jasper’s Mendelssohn is the string quartet at its finest. What a piece, and what a performance! Following intermission, three members of the quartet were joined onstage by bassist Philip Alejo and SCMF’s own Zaretsky on piano. Together they gave us the evening’s longest and most colorful piece, Schubert’s beloved “Trout” Quintet, D. 667.

A perfect foil to the elegant Beethoven and the wild Mendelssohn, Schubert’s quintet is a kaleidoscopic journey of timbres and textures. The ordinary piano quintet combines piano and string quartet; for this piece, Schubert borrowed an instrumentation used earlier by Johann Nepomuk Hummel, replacing the second violin with a double bass. This combination adds gravity and clears out the upper registers, allowing violin and piano to weave tight, clean dialogues.

The ensemble’s performance felt suspended outside of time. Generally, music in the Classical and Romantic periods constructs a thematic and structural narrative, asking the listener to follow the development and contrast of various themes within a larger harmonic architecture. In this Quintet, my ear was so dazzled by gem-like colors that all sense of narrative dissipated. The highlight of the piece was certainly the fourth movement, a set of variations on Schubert’s lied “Die Forelle” that gives the quintet its nickname. Like a nested encapsulation of the entire work, this movement subjected a small amount of melodic material to an enormous variety of instrumental colors and textures. A fine piece, splendidly wrought by the fine musicians of Swannanoa. I can’t praise these players and this concert series highly enough!