It seems that the Kontras Quartet intends each of its concerts to be an “event” rather than a mere concert, as was evidenced by this performance, as well as by the first in this series of Chamber Classics, presented by the Western Piedmont Symphony and held at the Catawba Valley Arts and Science Auditorium. 

Before the official start of the performance, the quartet appeared on stage to present a highly entertaining and informative prolog about the upcoming music, including how using Beethoven’s metronome markings can have disastrous results, the difference between muted and non-muted strings, Tchaikovsky’s beautiful Andante cantabile theme, and how a string quartet can sound like a full orchestra, complete with celesta.

The program opened with the String Quartet in B-flat, Op. 18, No. 6, by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). This is one of Beethoven’s early quartets, and its beginning is reminiscent of Haydn, who is considered the father of the modern string quartet, but after the first movement, the rest is all Beethoven, with an adagio that bursts forth into a scherzo with tricky rhythms and accents, and with yet another melancholic adagio, which lasts until its troubled thoughts are pushed away by the rapid allegretto finale. All of this was adroitly navigated by the Kontras Quartet, seemingly without batting an eyelash, even in the very complex scherzo.

Although Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) was known more for orchestral compositions, he did write three string quartets, the first of which, in D, Op. 11, was presented here. Most notable in this quartet is its second movement, Andante cantabile, built around a folksong that Tchaikovsky heard at his sister’s home. It is one of his most exquisite creations, and it has been the basis for many arrangements and popular songs. The third and fourth movements are lively dances and folk music themes, full of color and rhythmic character. Again, the Kontras Quartet presented a superb and lively performance of this engaging work.

During a little break, on stage suddenly appeared a Christmas tree, two leather chairs, a table and a lamp, and two larger-than-life nutcrackers, along with the Kontras Quartet and narrators Dick and Paulette Lael, who settled comfortably into the leather chairs. And off we went into the fantasy world of the “Nutcracker Suite,” also by Tchaikovsky, in an arrangement for string quartet by Carlo Martelli (b.1935), a talented and under-appreciated British composer. Interspersed between the movements was poetry taken from The New Nutcracker Suite by American poet Ogden Nash (1902-71), wonderfully read by the Laels. That the music was being played by a string quartet rather than a full orchestra was not even noticeable, it was so ably played, and not one thematic line was missing from the work, it was so ably composed. This made it all the more difficult to play, and again, the Kontras Quartet excelled beyond all expectation, and seemingly with little effort. And the celesta in the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy?” Why, pizzicato violins, or course!

The next “event” will be on February 19, 2011. Hopefully, the house will be as packed as it was for this performance. We know the audience will be just as enthusiastic and anxious to see what the Kontras Quartet has in store.