This season guest artists will be heard on both of the two chamber music series of the Eastern Music Festival, the Monday concert held in the UNC Greensboro School of Music’s Recital Hall, and the Tuesday concert held, except for this concert, in the Christ United Methodist Church this year. Two light-hearted, fun-to-play works preceded a magnificent interpretation of a major Shostakovich work. Unfortunately a local storm rained down a bevy of Jovian thunderbolts keeping many older regular music lovers at home.

French composer Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) was an archconservative who honed and refined a nineteenth century vision of a pure classical style. After playing the piano part at the premiere of César Franck’s Piano Quintet, Saint-Saëns left the work’s manuscript (a gift from Franck) in a trashcan offstage. Nevertheless, Saint-Saëns was a skilled composer if not always the creator of memorable themes. His Caprice on Danish and Russian Airs for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, and Piano, Op. 79, is delightful to hear and see played. It is in three brief movements, and its sunny sonority is due to the absence of a bass woodwind such as a bassoon. The Danish theme is presented at the opening by the flute, and it is used as the basis of the first half of the piece. The second theme, thought to be a Russian folk song, is given later by the oboe. Each of the so-called “soprano” woodwinds is given plenty of scope to strut their stuff besides making some lovely blended tones. The composer was a virtuoso pianist so that part is not neglected.

The musicians were flutist Ann Choomack, oboist Randall Ellis, clarinetist Shannon Scott, and pianist Gideon Rubin. (The program book incorrectly listed EMF principal flute Les Roettges.) Ellis and Scott are EMF faculty principals while Rubin has been a member of the piano faculty for some time and has performed widely nationally. The give-and-take between the players was a constant delight and each displayed a wide palette of color during their featured sections.

In England there is less snobbery about composers creating a broad range of music from art music for the concert hall to scores for movies or TV. Austrian émigré Erich Korngold was looked down upon by American critics and musicians for his movie soundtracks. Works by Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006) are among the most often performed pieces by English composers. These range from the symphonic, jazz, commercials, and film. His six-movement Divertimento for Flute, Oboe, and Clarinet, Op. 37, flows seamlessly while exuding rhythmic energy. It was at least as much fun to hear Choomack, Ellis, and Scott frolic through this as in the opening Saint-Saëns.

Steven Ledbetter’s program note drew important attention to the time the Cello Sonata, Op. 40, by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75) was composed. It dates from 1934, a period during which the composer was riding high in official favor and his opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District, had been premiered and was receiving international acclaim. It is in four movements, a bleak if lyrical first movement, followed by an ironic waltz, a heart-rending lament in the third movement, and ends with a dramatic, grotesque finale. Shostakovich’s acerbic and sarcastic scoring is present but there is no deeply hidden subtext. During Shostakovich’s tour performing this piece in 1936, the infamous “Chaos instead of music” appeared in Pravda. The review dictated by Stalin raised the very real threat of the gulag or death which haunted the composer until Stalin’s death. Shostakovich’s later works either subtly hide their message or, more often, were left in a desk drawer for better times.

Cellist Mark Kosower and pianist James Giles turned in as fine a performance as I have ever heard. The piece is a particular favorite of mine along with the great Second Piano Trio. Kosower’s intonation was simply breathtaking no matter how fast or how tricky the bowing or the kaleidoscope of pizzicatos. His tone was so deep and rich! Giles brought out the dark, desolate sound so apt for Shostakovich while reveling in the stark, bright treble chords. Next season, EMF ought to pair these artists with a violinist for Shostakovich’s Op. 67 with its challenging sustained glassy harmonics.

Updated 7/28/13: Recollection of the superlative Shostakovich caused me to omit noting a very apt short work that ended the program.

Czech cellist David Popper (1843-1913) was an extraordinary player and teacher who composed numerous works for the instrument. While his themes might not have been always memorable, he wrote superbly for the cello. Kosower’s closing selection, the Hungarian Rhapsody, Op. 68, shows the composer at his best. I first became aware of Popper in articles by the great cellist János Starker at the time his pioneering all-Popper CD on the Delos label was released. Starker had studied with Adolf Schiffer, one of Popper’s many pupils. Kosower studied with both Starker and Joel Krosnick. Ably supported by Giles, Kosower’s robust tone and stylish phrasing made the most of the folk-like qualities of the piece.