Two elegant examples of 19th century chamber music met an upstart from the 21st century in the final program of the Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival in Fletcher Recital Hall at East Carolina University.

Festival artistic director Ara Gregorian chose quintets to bring the 2007-08 chamber music festival to a close: Mendelssohn’s String Quintet No. 1 in A, Op. 18; Brahms’ String Quintet No. 2 in G, Op. 111; and “Time as a Fly,” a chamber work written by ECU professor Edward Jacobs, founder of the New Music @ ECU Festival.

The addition of another viola to the traditional string quartet instrumentation brings a substantial richness to the sound, and the five players conveyed that richness in their playing. Gregorian, normally the violist in the Four Seasons series, played violin during this performance, joined by Finnish violinist Elina Vähälä, who has performed with Sinfonia Lahti, the English Chamber Orchestra and the Minnesota Orchestra. Violists were Hsin-Yun Huang, a frequent member of the Borromeo String Quartet and founder of the Variation String Trio, and Melissa Reardon, a member of the ECU string faculty who also has played in the Borromeo Quartet. The cellist was Raman Ramakrishnan, a member of the Daedalus Quartet and Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble.

Begun when Mendelssohn was only 17, the String Quintet in A is a beautiful and mature work that sounds at times as if it is actually a piece for small chamber orchestra, although smaller ensembles are highlighted within the larger quintet scoring. The lovely trio of two violas and cello in the opening allegro con moto movement is a good example. Mendelssohn inserted an andante sostenuto movement into the quintet in 1832 (he described it as “a grand adagio”) in memory of his violin teacher, and the hymnlike harmonies at the opening set the tone for the movement, which has both a delicate sound and a wistful quality. Vähälä provided a properly elegiac voice in the lead violin passages.

The third movement, a scherzo, opened with the second viola beginning a rapid fugue in which all instruments were heard separately and in ensemble. The opening of this movement recalls the quick-tempo passages of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The final movement, allegro vivace, was highlighted by wonderful dynamic range by all players. It opened in dance-like fashion but soon became more substantial and included a new fugue introduced by the two violins, then first viola, then cello and second viola. This was music-making of the highest order, though one might have desired a slightly warmer tone in the lead violin, especially in the final movement.

Brahms’ Quintet in G was to have been his last composition; instead, it became his last string ensemble composition. If Mendelssohn’s quintet sounded as if it might have been a piece for chamber orchestra, Brahms’ quintet sounded as if it might have been a piece for full symphony orchestra. How he created such a full sound out of five instruments is a wonder, and the five players threw themselves into this work with considerable passion and skill.
Cellist Ramakrishnan set the tone for the opening allegro non troppo movement, playing a strong opening musical theme over the other four string parts, and then switching to an assertive pizzicato supporting role for a nice viola duet. A viola duet over pizzicato cello returns at the start of the adagio movement, followed by the two violins. The inner harmonies added a nice balance to the main melody lines, and this was perhaps the loveliest music of the evening, in part because of the composition, in part because of the playing.

The elegant third movement, un poco allegretto, starts off like a slow dance, almost a minor-key waltz, with viola duets and violin duets playing off the cello. The dance theme returns several times between fuller scoring. Again showing a fondness for the lower voices in the ensemble, Brahms starts the final vivace, ma non troppo presto with violas and cello, but the movement quickly becomes a showcase for full ensemble playing. The players showed Brahms at his most muscular, without sacrificing any elegance and grandeur. Cellist Ramakrishnan in particular played brilliantly throughout this piece, as well as the Mendelssohn.  

The contemporary work (completed in early April), Jacobs’ “Time as a Fly,” is a musical interpretation of a seven-line poem by Nicholas J. Glennon. As explained by Gregorian, the piece intends to show in musical terms the fluidity of time, the shifting of time, the differences in time, without being just an exploration of different time signatures.

Jacobs scored some dense sound clusters but not necessarily dissonance. At one point, the violas sound much like a musical telegraph message; at another point, a ghostly passage approaches but never quite reaches dissonance. The piece moves toward a crescendo but then tapers off to an enigmatic close, with Gregorian playing a solo violin line that recalls the closing of Also Sprach Zarathustra.

The piece is not as accessible to the general audience as some contemporary compositions, but it is not as off-putting as many such pieces. “Time as a Fly” resembles a musical version of abstract art, something that might grow on the listener.