Debuts of new ensembles (of whatever size…) give hope to beleaguered classical music enthusiasts who more often spend time lamenting the purported graying of audiences and decline in subscription revenues — or both. And debuts are doubly encouraging when the debutantes are relatively young hotshots in their fields. Thus there was considerable excitement at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Raleigh on the afternoon of Sunday, January 28, when the Quercus Piano Quartet bowed before a small but nonetheless enthusiastic audience. Aside from its somewhat noisy HVAC system, the UUFR offers excellent acoustics that are infinitely better than one might expect, at first glance. They have a good piano. And the management of the two series there is savvy, so production values are high.

Quercus consists of Frank Pittman, piano, and Carol Chung, violin, both based primarily at Meredith College, and David Marschall, viola, and Bonnie Thron, cello, both based primarily in the NC Symphony. In all cases, the affiliations are at once important and — for want of a better word —inconsequential because these folks teach and coach and savor music in all its richness but are first and foremost artists of the first rank. They play a lot, in a lot of places, and almost without exception, the performances they give constitute events of importance in our musical lives. That they’ve gotten together to form this group, the name of which is Latin for “oak,” says a great deal about what’s right nowadays in the classical music business. They’ve known and worked with each other for several years. It’s only logical that they should formalize their relationship by coming up with a name that reflects growth, steadfastness, strength, and character, not to mention the fact that the capital fancies itself the City of Oaks.

The program evolved a bit between the announcement of the series last fall and the concert itself. Martinu’s name fell by the wayside; Pittman promised his music will appear on a future program. The debut concert began with Mozart’s arrangement for string trio of a Prelude (from the Organ Sonata, S.527) and a Fugue (Contrapunctus 8 from Art of Fugue, S.1080). Mozart was neither the first nor the last composer to study Bach by copying and reworking his music, and despite the somewhat disparate nature of these pieces, the transcription works well – indeed, very well, for the lines are clearer played on strings than is often the case with “original instruments” renditions (whatever that means…).

There followed Dohnányi’s Serenade in C, Op. 10, a substantial string trio published in 1904 but made famous for many members of my parents’ generation by a record album that featured Heifetz, Primrose, and Feuermann. The album began life as Vic. M/DM-903 and then enjoyed several reissues, through which its influence persisted. It’s a heckuva piece in five movements that evoke late Romanticism but with an occasionally restless and sometime melancholy undercurrent. The performance was exciting, constantly engaging, and appropriately incisive where it needed to be. Based on this work alone, it would appear that the string side of Quercus has a bright future.

That said, Pittman is no slouch, either, and when he joined his colleagues for Brahms’ much-loved First Piano Quartet — yes, it’s the one that Schoenberg orchestrated — the fireworks kicked in for real. The opening movement was impassioned and at times heroic, the soft-spoken Intermezzo provided perfect contrast, the Andante was truly expansive, and the finale — marked “Rondo alla Zingarese” — flew like the wind. There’s never a problem with balance when Pittman is part of the mix, thanks (perhaps) to his years of service accompanying singers; he’s watchful, keenly responsive, and always on top of things as performances unfold. Together with Chung, Marschall, and Thron, this new quartet is something to write home about, in a manner of speaking. So here’s a word to the wise: be on the lookout for a large albeit lithe object with leaves in all the right places, and when you read about it in CVNC‘s calendar or elsewhere, make tracks to check it out! You’ll be glad you did.

The next UUFR concert will be a program involving classical Japanese instruments on Saturday, March 3, at 3:00 p.m. For details, see our calendar.