One of the best kept secrets on the local music scene is the series of concerts sponsored by the Williamson Center for Performing Arts at Peace College. The programs are usually excellent, as are the performers, and the Sarah Graham Kenan Recital Hall has respectable acoustics. Nevertheless, every time we’ve attended one of these concerts, the audience has been skimpy at best.

A case in point was this season’s opening concert of chamber music with players from the NC Symphony. Granted, people have been slow to get back to normal after the horrific events of last week. They missed, however, an excellent and original program.

The NC Symphony’s principal cellist, Bonnie Thron opened the program with an unscheduled performance of four movements from the Suite in d minor for solo cello by Bach. The work was a last-minute substitution for the Concertino by Erwin Schulhoff, which couldn’t be performed because flautist Mary Boone had a family emergency. 

In keeping with the ever-growing tendency of performers to deliver oral program notes from the stage, Thron addressed the issue of how performing musicians hear music as compared to audiences. Using the opening bars of the Suite as an example, she described how Bach integrated the opening phrase into a structural entity of the entire movement. While her analysis was accessible and cogent, she, like many performers, needs to make her verbal delivery as smooth as her playing. Thron had selected the Bach Suite in part because of its appropriateness for this time of national reflection. Her interpretation was extremely sensitive and certainly in keeping with the spirit of these days. Her use of very light bowing throughout conveyed the sense that her performance was more a musical meditation than a display of technical virtuosity.

The mood of the performance changed dramatically from somber to humorous in the second number, a duo for cello and doublebass by Gioacchino Rossini. The Duo was composed in 1824 for Sir David Salomons, a well-to-do London merchant who was also an amateur cellist, with the idea that Domenico Dragonetti, the nineteenth century virtuoso who put the double bass on the map, will be the bass player. It remained in manuscript in private hands and was finally published in 1969. Enormously successful as an opera composer, Rossini took early retirement, producing occasional instrumental and vocal works, which are decidedly quirky and often frankly funny. In the Duo, the composer employing true coloratura displays in the bottom register, sets up a delightful competition between cello and bass. Thron and the Symphony’s principal bass Leonid Finkletsteyn combined fine and frequently difficult playing with a light spirit.

The highlight of the evening was a performance of Mozart’s Quintet for violin, two violas, cello and horn. While the piece is frankly one of Mozart’s more fluffy works, the horn playing of the Symphony’s Kimberly Van Pelt was nothing short of spectacular. Van Pelt has a formidable technique, which manifests itself particularly in her ability to shape phrases and control her releases with great subtlety.

We are sorry to have been unable to hear Schulhoff’s Concertino and hope that the players reschedule it. Schulhoff, born in Prague in 1894, died in the Wülzburg concentration camp in Bavaria in 1942. He was a also virtuoso pianist, well-known in the 1920s and ’30s for his jazz performances and recordings. Much of his music has survived and gives a good overview of the fertile musical life in Central Europe in the 1920s and early 30s.