One would be hard-pressed to pick a favorite among the six pieces that made up the Next Generation concert in the Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival at East Carolina University’s Fletcher Recital Hall in early April. Artistic director Ara Gregorian selected a variety of crowd pleasers, and the ECU students and faculty members, joined by two guest artists, delivered the goods, from start to finish.

The concert featured three pieces played by a chamber orchestra, with several faculty and guest performers joined by nearly 20 students each time. The program began with the opening allegro movement of Grieg’s Holberg Suite, Op. 20, one of the loveliest of the composer’s works; it received a lush and spirited reading, with a tight sound. The program closed with Barber’s emotional Adagio for Strings, in the chamber orchestra version, and two movements from Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings. In the Barber Adagio, the drama and intensity of the score were matched by the dramatic intensity of the playing. Entrances and cutoffs were especially fine, including leading into and out of the momentary silences that are critically important. In the Tchaikovsky, the light-heartedness of the rhythmic waltz section contrasted nicely with the intensity and loveliness of the opening pezzo in forma di sonatina movement. (Gregorian programmed the third valse section before the opening sonatina, then had the ensemble play the waltz again as an encore.) All three pieces for chamber orchestra, as well known as they are, drew hearty applause from the nearly-full house.

In between came three more intimate pieces for smaller ensembles, and in these compositions, top ECU string students got to show their skills playing alongside faculty members and guest performers. For this program, the guests were violist Maria Lambros, a member of the chamber music faculty at the Peabody Conservatory and frequent guest during regular Four Seasons Festival programs, and Eric Thompson III, bassist with the Charlotte Symphony and faculty member at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte.

Students Marta Lambert, viola, and C.J. Collins, cello, joined Gregorian, Lambros and faculty violinist Hye-Jin Kim for a terrific reading of the first and fourth movements of Beethoven’s String Quintet in C, Op. 29, subtitled “The Storm.” This piece might have been the least well known on the program, but the quintet delivered a memorable performance. Gregorian and Kim had some lovely duet sections, and her delicate, singing tone as first violin was a highlight. Gregorian and Lambros also had fine duets, and the three had interesting trio passages at several points during the opening allegro moderato movement. In the fourth (presto) movement, which swirls about with great energy, the dance-like phrases punctuated by the bold chords were especially interesting. Collins displayed considerable authority on the cello leads, and Kim delivered some dazzling figures as first violin.

Gregorian, Kim, Lambros, and faculty cellist Emmanuel Gruber were joined by four students in the opening allegro moderato, ma con fuoco, movement of Mendelssohn’s ever-popular Octet in E-flat, Op. 20, which has been played at earlier Next Generation concerts, either in full or in part. This movement is quite an undertaking – an almost self-contained concert piece in its shifts of mood and dynamics – and it received a splendid reading. Gregorian’s lead violin was at the forefront several times, and Gruber and student R. Jesse Smith traded some nice plucked vs. bowed passages on the cellos.

Faculty pianist Keiko Sekino joined the string players for the third and fourth movements of Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E-flat, Op. 44, and she delivered a commanding performance in the lead-in lines of the third scherzo movement, with its furious ascending and descending runs at the opening, while Gregorian, Lambros, and students Johnathan Spence, violin, and Logan Dailey, cello, carried the fourth (allegro ma non troppo) movement, which featured an especially nice fugue led by the piano and followed in sequence by second violin, first violin, viola, and cello.

The Next Generation series, added to the four Seasons chamber Music Festival lineup relatively recently, is an excellent way to showcase the musical talent among students in the ECU School of Music, and to consider that this top-level music-making is offered free of charge to the public is all the more significant. Gregorian has begun to take the Next Generation programs on the road; devotees of chamber music in communities away from Greenville should not pass up the opportunity to hear these programs.