The Highlands-Cashiers Chamber Music Festival‘s 38th season launched with a bang with two sold-out concerts. Programming “By George! The Chamber Music of George Gershwin” on the Fourth of July holiday weekend was a brilliant move, and the audience at the Albert Carlton-Cashiers Community Library couldn’t seem to get enough of this toe-tapping panoply of Americana. The artists were pianists William Ransom (also the festival’s artistic director) and Julie Coucheron, violinists David Coucheron and Kate Ransom, violist Julianne Lee, cellist Charae Krueger, and clarinetist Marci Gurnow. The concert underwriters were Roger and Kendra Haines and Martha Ingram.

The festival, spread over six weeks in the beautiful villages of Cashiers and Highlands in the western North Carolina mountains, is a unique blend of formal concerts such as this one and more informal events in intimate settings and usually paired with a food/drink event. The roster of musicians, many of whom perform internationally, is deeply impressive, with several returning to play for many years. Ransom is usually the congenial host of each concert as well as one of the performing artists, two roles he pulls off with an easy grace.

George Gershwin’s music is known the world over for its uniquely American blend of jazz, blues, and classical elements. His popular songs for stage and screen, operas, and instrumental pieces are concert mainstays. Tragically, his 23-year career was cut short when he died at age 38 after surgery for a brain tumor in 1937.

The program opened with the “Cuban Overture” for piano four-hands, composed in 1932 following Gershwin’s two-week holiday in Havana. William Ransom and Julie Coucheron gave a high-octane performance of this bustling, rumba-inspired, and incessantly rhythmic work. Flashy passagework and thick scoring made for some sweaty playing, but of course they made it sound easy. It’s time that artists of their caliber had a full-sized grand piano on which to perform in Cashiers instead of this one, which is woefully lacking in resonance.

Next was the “Lullaby” for string quartet, the earliest classical piece he’d written for his composition teacher, Edward Kilenyi, Sr. Though appealing just as a sweetly serene composition, it is also programmatic. The oscillating rhythms represent the rocking of the cradle (complete with a squeak); midway, there is a reference to the tune “Happy Birthday,” which explains why the excited birthday child can’t get to sleep. More rocking and rocking, until a calming tempo takes over, to end with tiptoeing exiting and a snapping off of the lights. The quartet of David Coucheron, Kate Ransom, Lee, and Krueger gave a splendid performance of this little gem, approaching the work with seriousness, tenderness, and humor.

Just before intermission Gurnow performed Three Etudes for Solo Clarinet (1990), a set of pieces composed by Paul Harvey based loosely on three Gershwin songs: “I Got Rhythm, “Summertime,” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” Harvey was a British composer, saxophonist, and clarinetist who aspired to compose a set of clarinet etudes to rival Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet. The results are pieces that tax the player technically in every conceivable way through a compositional labyrinth of dissonances and disjunct melodic bits, and tax the listener who may not be fascinated with clarinet technique per se. Gurnow was technically proficient and very musical in her rendition. Still, the audience found enjoying these offerings a bit of a stretch and gave them tepid applause at their conclusion.

After intermission the Coucheron siblings took the stage for the Porgy and Bess Suite, brilliantly transcribed by Jascha Heifetz. Heifetz and Gershwin were good friends, and Heifetz pleaded with the composer to write a violin concerto for him. Unfortunately, the composer died before any concerto was written. This piece, Heifetz’s 1944 homage to his friend, draws on five well-known Gershwin tunes (played in the following order on this concert): “My Man’s Gone Now,” “Tempo di Blues (There’s a Boat That’s Leavin Soon for New York),” “Bess, You is My Woman Now,” “Summertime,” “A Woman is a Sometime Thing,” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” The transcriptions are beloved masterpieces in the violin and piano literature and the Coucherons played them with remarkable sensitivity and a sense of fun. They were rewarded with a standing ovation.

“That is a hard act to follow,” William Ransom quipped when he emerged to perform the concert’s final piece, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue for piano solo, from memory. This version was actually the first version of this jazz piano concerto, before it was later orchestrated for a 15-17 piece jazz band. Reflecting on the work’s significance, Gershwin later told his biographer: “I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness.” Ransom performed magnificently, theatrically, sensitively, and worked hard to get the utmost out of the undersized piano. His sense of timing was infallible. The audience was on its feet immediately with a raucous ovation.

The Highlands Cashiers Chamber Music Festival continues throughout the summer until August 11. See our calendar for details on upcoming performances.