The offerings of the Highlands-Cashiers Chamber Music Festival, celebrating its 35th season, include a remarkable variety of repertory played by a virtual “Who’s Who” of world-class performers – some famous, some not yet famous, but all of remarkable quality! The whole of the artistic offerings are engineered and often enhanced by artistic director William Ransom, a fine pianist himself. Occasionally the boss has to take some lumps, navigating unavoidable mishaps, which interfere with the smooth execution of the master plan.

One such bump occurred in the wee hours of the morning preceding Friday’s concert, cryptically entitled “3 5s,” for “35 Seasons” but referring to three (3) quintets (5s) which were featured on the evening’s program. A phone call had established that one of the performers was in deep distress with a stomach bug and could not guarantee the evening’s participation in the short but interesting opening piece, Samuel Barber’s Summer Music, Op. 31, for Woodwind Quintet. Unable to find another clarinetist at such short notice, Ransom was forced to cancel the evening’s performance by the quintet, with the hopes that the player’s rapid recovery would make Saturday evening’s performance in Cashiers possible. He even offered free admission to any of the Highlands ticket-holders who cared to make the trip to hear the Barber on the repeat performance at the Albert Carlton-Cashiers Library Auditorium on Saturday.

Chamber music is a lofty goal for most musicians. For string players, it embodies the purest form of music, not dependant on orchestral color or bombast. There is a homogeneity of tone (and vibrato), of tuning (“just” tuning instead of “mean” tuning) – and often times even of bowing – that creates a global unity rare in other groups, although brass ensembles and saxophone quartets can come close. Itinerant soloists who play a different concerto with a different orchestra in a different city each week deplore the lack of time and permanent residency needed to maintain a stable relationship with a chamber ensemble. Orchestral musicians rarely have time and the organizational backing to make chamber performances anything other than occasional forays into musical wonderland.

For this writer, there is no more complete or perfect ensemble than a string quartet, give or take a bass, a cello, or a viola. And the same goes for the large and exquisite body of music written for the string quartet by almost every composer. Not fitting into to the huge and wonderful halls of the world but more at ease in the intimate settings of a living room or small hall, chamber music has a small but fiercely devoted following. And it has its own festivals: Marlboro, Santa Fe, and earlier, Casals and Prades. Most large festivals such as Aspen, Salzburg, Wolf Trap, Ravinia, Tanglewood, and Spoleto also have chamber music components.

The maestro-in-residence this evening in the Highlands Performing Arts Center was Andrés Cárdenes, former concertmaster of the Pittsburgh Symphony and recording artist and soloist around the world. He was joined by violinist Jessica Wu, violists Yinzi Kong and Luke Fleming, and cellist Charae Kruger in the first of two of Felix Mendelssohn’s string quintets, Op. 18, in A (mistakenly identified in the program book as Op. 87, which is his later second quintet, in B-flat). Mendelssohn composed this quintet at the age of 17 and wrote a new second movement (Intermezzo) six years later. We heard the revised version with this newer Intermezzo.

This was a superb performance, sweet in tone and absolutely precise in rhythm. Except for a virtually indiscernible false entrance in the Intermezzo, this was near-perfect playing. One especially loves the warm rich tone of Cárdenes, matched by the even darker and richer tone of violist Kong. The first movement begins super-legato, only to be attacked with staccatos from the cello – eventually infecting the entire quintet – leading to a second theme in the unexpected key of B minor, with four haunting and insistent high C-sharps in the second violin before the repeat of the exposition.

The Scherzo (a fugue in 2/4 instead of the traditional 3/4) reminded listeners of the then-recently-completed Overture to A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream with the addition of a musical siege by the “low-note-gang” (cello and viola, reiterated and reinforced by cello and two violas). The contrapuntal Finale is reminiscent of the final movement of the last of Mendelssohn’s twelve String Symphonies and uses a theme close to Mozart’s Finale to the Symphony 41, the “Jupiter Symphony.”

Dropping violist Fleming in favor of pianist Elizabeth Pridgen, the newly-reconfigured quintet played Ernst von Dohnányi’s early Quintet for Piano and String Quartet in C minor, Op. 1, also a product of his teenage years and written despite the daunting precedents set by Brahms. The composer was to return to this form 17 years later.

The first movement begins with and largely features the piano and is big and lush, although in the barn-like structure of the Highlands Theater, the piano was upstaged by the louder sounds of the string quartet. (That should be fixed by the opposite acoustic phenomenon at the Cashiers Library.) It was interesting for this (orchestrally-trained) musician to observe that identical musical passages were bowed in opposite fashion – which means the bowing has been adapted to the strengths and characteristics of each musician – something one can rarely permit in the orchestra (exception made for Leopold Stokowski, who encouraged musicians to use free bowings in legato passages).

After the Scherzo, as the second movement instead of its more tradition location as third movement, the Adagio, quasi Andante third movement seemed to be the high point, opening with a lovely viola solo, repeated in turn by each instrument, ending with the piano which led the modulation into a development of the theme. Again, bowings were fascinating as they reflected the characteristics of the players. The Finale starts and indulges in the complex meter that makes the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony (“Pathétique”) so fascinating, 5/4 combined with much longer passages of 6/4. A four-voice fugato in the strings is repeated in the piano before a lilting recapitulation of the first theme and a second intervention lead to a coda and an “A-men” ending (IV-I, Plagal cadence). The sophisticated and enthusiastic audience cheered the musicians in a well-deserved standing ovation! The concert will be repeated on Saturday afternoon at 5 p.m. at the Albert Carlton-Cashiers Library Auditorium in Cashiers.

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