Nothing could have been a better way to decompress from the “routine” of three to five concerts daily during my week at the 2004 Spoleto Festival USA than three consecutive evening concerts at Reynolda House in Winston-Salem beginning June 14. It was a rare chance to hear much of the duo repertory of Johannes Brahms, leavened by choice 20th century or contemporary fare. The museum house’s large two-story living room is an ideal venue for chamber music, allowing the most delicate pianissimo to register.

All the concerts featured the artistry of a string octet, The Young Eight, a group of African-American musicians from the most distinguished music schools and conservatories in the country, founded in 2002 at the North Carolina School of the Arts by director Quinton I. Morris. Their mission is to expose various communities to the arts through classical music. The octet hosts a summer residency program at the NCSA and performs public concerts in the Winston-Salem community. Their residency includes The Young Eight String Seminar, a week-ong chamber music program for high school and college music students. The June 13 Winston-Salem Journal had a fascinating article by Bob Workman about the ensemble’s innovative use of digital-quality video and CD-clear audio on Internet2, used to work with mentors and experienced coaches such as Peter Salaff, the first violinist and founding member of the now-retired Cleveland String Quartet. The Reynolda House residency resulted from the recommendation of NCSA faculty member Clifton Matthews.

Brahms’s First Violin Sonata, in G, Op. 78, opened the June 14 concert. Its nickname, “Regenlied,” certainly was apt for the local conditions! The “Rain Song” alludes to the fact that the last movement makes prominent use of the theme from the composer’s song and its particular rhythm – note, pause, short note, long note – recurs in all the movements. Melvin Berger, in Guide to Sonatas (a favorite crutch), quotes Brahms’s letter to the conductor Otto Dessoff: “You must not complain about the rain. It can be set very well to music, something I have tried to do along with spring in a violin sonata.”

Violinist Mariana Green brought a good full tone, sensitive attention to dynamics and true intonation to her part. Her interpretation was well within the tradition, and her phrasing of the main themes had an especially satisfying warmth. With the Steinway piano lid on the short stick, guest pianist David Antony Lofton balanced perfectly with his partner, never covering her lines.

Violist Dawn Michelle Smith turned in the most immediately appealing performance of the evening, Brahms’s First Viola Sonata, in F Minor, Op. 120, No. 1 (listed as Op. 122 in the program). I have heard the viola sonatas more frequently in their clarinet guise. They were the fruits of the composer’s friendship with clarinet virtuoso Richard Mühlfield. The ranges of the clarinet and the viola are almost the same, and the composer took into account each instrument’s peculiarities when he modified the clarinet versions for viola. Harris Goldsmith, in the notes to his Stradivari CD of the two sonatas with violist Nabuko Imai, notes that “the lowest, ‘chalumaux’ octave of the clarinet can sound hollow and unalluring while the corresponding register on the viola has an appealingly sensuous, dusky warmth. Conversely, high notes, so floating and natural on the clarinet, tend… (on the viola) to lack the brilliance that is second nature to the violin.” Using a very large viola, Smith brought out the deepest, fullest and richest imaginable timbre in the viola’s lines. She made an instant connection with the audience with her assured playing and beautiful phrasing. Lofton’s piano was the very model of balance, and he brought out the valedictory quality so typical of late Brahms.

Even before the Triangle celebrated the works of William Grant Still in a wide-ranging series of concerts and seminars, “Still Goin’ On,” in October 1995, I had admired his music from hard-to-find recordings. Still’s Suite for Violin and Piano (1943) provided a leavening contrast to the Brahms. According to Dominique-René de Lerma’s notes to a New World Records CD of the composer’s works by the ensemble, Videmus, Still was attempting in this Suite to “approximat(e) indigenous African music.” During the 1930s that area of ethnomusicolgy had received little scholarly attention, so the composer had no original sources upon which to draw. Instead, “he had to settle on modal inventions which, if not authentic, at least gave the flavor of the idiom he desired.” Visual artists were a further source of inspiration. Richard Barthe’s “African Dancer” was the inspiration for the first movement, Sargent Johnson’s lithograph “Mother and Child” inspired the second, and a bronze sculpture, “Gamin,” by Augusta Savage, was the Muse for the last movement. Violinists split duties with Green taking the first two movements and Kenneth Jarvis, the finale. A three-measure phrase in the opening movement was reminiscent of a hymn. This was repeatedly contrasted with a bluesy section, an element well brought out by Lofton. Green brought a nice light touch to the opening of the second movement, which was ardent and lyric. The crowd-pleaser, deservedly, was the last movement, full of impish and sassy humor, in much the same spirit as Still’s “Li’l Scamp” or “Quit Dat Fool’nish.” Perhaps Lofton could be allowed to strut his stuff in some ragtime or stride piano in some future concert. I also looked forward to more extended playing from Jarvis in the third concert.

Tahirah Whittington brought fine tone and intonation, sensitive attention to dynamics and expression, and a fairly traditional interpretation to Brahms’s First Cello Sonata, in E Minor, Op. 38. Her interplay with Lofton’s piano line was very satisfying, as was the balance between them.

Each of the three concerts of Brahms’s music at the Reynolda House residency of the Young Eight was seasoned with a work by another composer. Sharing a haunting sense of melancholy and loss as well as holding true to older styles of composition, Samuel Barber is the ideal 20th-century composer to pair with Brahms. Barber’s early “Dover Beach,” for baritone and string quartet, Op. 3, a setting of the poem by Matthew Arnold, embodies all these qualities and was the high point of the June 15 concert. It was composed in 1931, while Barber was a student at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, and he sang and played a piano reduction for Ralph Vaughan Williams. In his Guide to Chamber Music , Melvin Berger quotes the English master, who was not known for fulsome praise: “I myself once set Dover Beach , but you really got it!”

From the ranks of the Young Eight’s string octet, violinists Jessie Montgomery and Mariana Green-Hill, violist Christopher Jenkins, and cellist Tahirah Whittington constituted the string quartet. Their sensitive attention to subtle dynamics and rhythm perfectly portrayed the melancholy and elegiac atmosphere of the poem, beginning with the almost imperceptible, gentle rocking of the violins conveying the ebb and flow of the sea. Using a rich and warm baritone voice and crisp and clear diction, recent NCSA graduate Yona Wade projected the text in an ideal style. Arnold’s metaphor for “the ebb and flow of human existence” was sculptured in sound. I had praised him for these same qualities in NCSA’s May performances of Britten’s Rape of Lucretia .

The performance of Brahms’s Second Cello Sonata in F, Op. 99, that opened this concert was the series’s only disappointment. Cellist Ryan Murphy produced a good, full tone along with solid intonation and phrasing, and his interpretation was well within traditional parameters, but he played only the first two (of four) movements. “Bleeding chunks” of Wagner can be rationalized, but “Brahms Lite?” With the piano lid on the short stick, David Antony Lofton held to his good standard of balance and demonstrated a secure grasp of Brahms’s style.

Young Eight founder and director, Quinton I. Morris played Brahms radiant and sunny Second Violin Sonata in A, Op. 100. Elizabeth von Herzogenberg, a former student and trusted friend of the composer, said “The whole sonata is a caress.” Melvin Berger, in his Guide to Sonatas , quotes the composer to the effect that “a number of songs go into the sonata.'” “Komm bald” is quoted in the opening melody, followed by the tune of “Wie Melodien zieht es mir.” Fleeting references are made to four more songs in the finale. All of this bright lyricism was well brought out by Morris and Lofton. My favorite episode was the ideally phrased quiet ending of the second movement.

Brahms’s Second Viola Sonata in E-flat, Op. 120, No. 2, received a richly satisfying reading from violist Christopher Jenkins and pianist Lofton. Jenkins’s glowing and resonant tone made a fine contrast to the sometimes massive and sonorous piano part. In the first movement, rubato was used sparingly so the rhythmic juxtaposition of twos against threes was not masked. Lofton made the most of the expanded piano part in the second movement. The last movement is a masterful theme and variations typical of Brahms; it was a delight to hear the players weave the interplay of lines.

Brahms’s Sonatensatz in C Minor, WoO 2, for violin and piano, is the only commonly performed movement from a sonata composed in 1853 as a surprise greeting for Joseph Joachim. Albert Dietrich contributed the first movement and Robert Schumann, the second and fourth movements; Brahms wrote the third (scherzo) movement. On June 16, it provided the appetizer for the third and final concert of the Young Eight’s residency at Reynolda House. Violinist Kenneth Jarvis and pianist David Antony Lofton fully brought out the Romantic qualities of the composer’s earliest compositional style. The piano part is very passionate, and Lofton gave it its head while rarely covering Jarvis, who deployed a wide dynamic range. His gentle trills during the hushed finish were memorable.

It was too bad that I had heard just last week a magnificent performance of Brahms’s great Third Violin Sonata in D Minor, Op. 108, performed by Chee-Yun and Wendy Chen as part of the Spoleto USA Chamber Music Series. The Young Eight are enthusiastic artists at the beginning of their professional careers, so a direct comparison with established soloists would be unfair. Violinist Jessie Montgomery and pianist Lofton turned in a largely satisfying reading. My only reservation concerned Montgomery’s unusually quiet first movement opening. Her articulation and phrasing were fine but I feared that she had a tiny tone. The opening is marked sotto voce and everything could be heard in the intimate acoustics of Reynolda House. Of course when the first forte was played, her full sound was readily apparent, and the dynamic choice did make for high contrast.

Before the intermission, all the players came out to surprise and honor the heroic efforts of their guest pianist. On very short notice, their scheduled keyboard player could not come. Lofton came down from Philadelphia and rehearsed the scheduled repertory intensively. The quality of his playing in so many works was amazing, revealing a quick study with considerable artistic sensitivity.

I have long admired the few chamber music works by David Baker that I had been able to hear on recordings of works commissioned by cellist Janos Starker. The African American composer has been at the Indiana University School of Music for the past thirty years; he has established there one of our country’s premiere jazz studies departments. Violinist and Young Eight founder Quinton Morris led a quartet consisting of violinist Jarvis, violist Dawn Smith, and cellist Ryan Murphy in Baker’s “Pastorale.” This is a gentle and lovely short piece that is uncharacteristic of a composer who has written brilliant jazz and blues movements for the cello. The otherwise fine program notes omitted any information about Baker or his composition and no detailed comments were made before its performance.

Whether it was the program’s length or a desire to “leave ‘m wantin’ more,” six of the group played only the first two movements of Brahms lush four-movement Sextet No. 1 in B-flat, Op. 18. Violinists Montgomery and Morris, violists Christopher Jenkins and Smith, and cellists Tahirah Whittington and Murphy played with some of the tightest ensemble of the series; there was particularly good blending and the sound had great warmth. Few things are as lovely as the unison cello and viola opening. It is too bad that our satisfaction was left partly unconsummated by the omission of the last two movements.