As part of An Appalachian Summer Festival, the Broyhill Chamber Ensemble presented their next installment, Divine Inspiration or Intelligent Design, offering a fresh look at old favorites and giving a hearing to some rarely heard gems. The ensemble, consisting of a fluid number of musicians depending on the repertoire, was represented for this concert by Gil Morgenstern on violin and Rieko Aizawa on piano.

The program was thematically centered but actually explored many more issues than the central dichotomy of inspiration versus perspiration. Morgenstern’s commentary focused more on the influence, or lack thereof, of the context of a piece on a player or listener’s interpretation. In other words, does the listener experience music differently after actually reading the program notes? Or is the essence and entire reality of a piece of music contained within the notation? One of the strengths (well, bad habits) of critics is answering questions, regardless of whether anyone has asked them. The inherent problem with asking such questions is that there are no satisfying answers. Perhaps the best response is to ask even more questions. How does changing the instrumentation of a piece change its effect? How can a musician make a less accessible work more meaningful to an audience? And should we give the underappreciated art of programming more credit?

While on the subject of programming, the concert opened with an unusual and fascinating pairing of Lera Auerbach’s Lonely Suite: Ballet for a Lonely Violinist and a Beethoven violin sonata, Op. 12, No. 2 in A. The connection between the pieces had nothing to do with musical style or form, but was found in the inception of the works. The suite was written as an exploration of “loneliness and fragmentation,” according to the composer. Beethoven wrote the A Major sonata during a dark and isolated period of his life, while coming to terms with the onset of the deafness that would redefine his career.

Morgenstern’s presentation of the solo suite demonstrated a colorful variety of timbres and a strong dynamic range. When Aizawa joined him for the sonata, her sparkling, bright touch provided both clarity and brilliance. Many pianists would reserve such an attack more for Mozart, but it was very effective with the Beethoven, especially when combined with the very Romantic approach to phrase-shaping.

After the Auerbach/Beethoven pairing, the duo presented a movement from Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time). The movement, “Louange à l’Immortalité de Jesus,” was originally scored for cello and piano. One of the ideas not explored was the effect of changes of instrumentation. Would the composer have approved?  How does the substitution of the violin alter the interpretation of the piece? Changing anything about such an inspired piece seems vaguely irreverent. But then again, many of the best musicians and composers have had little to no respect for convention.

Following the Messiaen was the Suite Populaire Espagnole by Manuel de Falla. This set of songs was transcribed for violin and piano and proved a colorful selection. Morgenstern and Aizawa performed effectively, with a true sense of the style of the work. Unfortunately, the suite suffered unfairly by the contrast with the two emotionally and spiritually intense pieces before and after it.

The most musical sensitivity of the night was displayed during Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel.  This piece, deeply and powerfully simple, was expressed with a beautiful sense of peace by both performers. Technically, it’s almost laughably straightforward, but it is the type of work that takes an incredible amount of musical maturity to cause to sing. Morgenstern and Aizawa were able to put a powerful composition in its best light.

Naturally, the Waltz from Billy the Kid and lively Hoe-Down from Rodeo were clear audience favorites. Speaking from personal experience, the reduction, even though done by Copland himself, is depressingly un-pianistic. Aizawa, however, negotiated the awkward passages with a decent amount of cleanliness. Morgenstern’s shifting to a more fiddlerish hold provided cause for amusement, as did the irrepressible rendition of the all-American favorite.

The only gripe of the evening was the series of stark contrasts from piece to piece. Unfortunately, the emotional yo-yo effect of the Quartet for the End of Time, a handful of popular, light Spanish songs, then Arvo Pärt’s introspection, followed by a toe-tappin’ Hoe-Down proved difficult for the audience to follow. Even so, the enthusiastic response to the Hoe-Down elicited one more round of do-si-dos by Morgernstern and Aizawa.