Chamber Music Wilmington, one of the premier series in Wilmington, has firmly resumed operations in spite of ongoing concerns regarding the pandemic. The audience may be a bit smaller than heretofore, but the enthusiasm is undiminished. Taking place in the superb Beckwith Recital Hall on the campus of UNC Wilmington, concerts are heard in a hall with acoustics ideal for subtle and intimate music making.

CMW’s first presentation of 2022 brought the artistry of the Verona Quartet to the stage. The quartet has appeared at such internationally leading locales as Lincoln Center and Wigmore Hall. They are on the faculty at the Oberlin College and Conservatory and hold a residency at North Carolina’s Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle, among other places. Their first CD, Diffusion, was released in June 2021; their second album, to be called Shatter, will showcase works of American composers.

The first piece on the program was Schubert’s brief and powerful Quartettsatz in C minor, D 703. As identified by the German title, it is a single movement; this is one of any number of pieces that Schubert left unfinished (like his eighth symphony, which is famous for being incomplete). Like so many of Schubert’s works, it had its premiere only after the composer’s death. Regardless, the movement is a marvel of drama and cohesion. The Verona sprang into the opening with all the intensity it demands. The second theme is redolent of Schubert as the great composer of Lieder. In this performance, it was treated with fine lyricism, as was the cadential closing of the section. With contrasts strongly defined, the return of the exposition was most welcome. More lyricism and dramatic expression followed, and the 9-minute movement was all too quickly over. The impressive strengths of the Verona Quartet were amply in evidence.

The second piece was Leyendas [Legends]: An Andean Walkabout, composed in 2001 by Gabriela Lena Frank. Frank is currently Composer-in-Residence with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Her music embodies a range of cultural identities, reflecting her own unusual heritage; her mother is Peruvian and Chinese and her father is Lithuanian and Jewish. She is the winner of a Latin Grammy and holds a Guggenheim Fellowship.

The 20-minute Leyendas reflects Frank’s heritage and extensive travels in Latin America. Its six movements project a composer with a vivid sound imagination combining Latin, tonal, and dissonant elements into a cohesive work. The Verona Quartet in turn projected this vividness in a performance which, like the Schubert preceding it, left the listener wanting more.

The brief opening “Toyos” has a wistful sound, with slides and pizzicato and a thoughtful fade at the end. The following “Terquedad” (Obstinacy) suggested Bartok, a particular admiration of Frank’s with the added suggestion of Peruvian flutes. First violinist Jonathan Ong opened this movement in a high register, which was answered with a lower-register reply. Faster, irregular rhythms with a dissonant sound follow. An especially beautiful passage came with the first violin on very high pitches and delicate slides underneath. This was a memorable sound.

The third movement, “Himno de Zampoñas,” makes the homage to the Latin panpipes (zampoñas) explicit. This featured the percussive effect of the players hitting the strings. Snatches of melody wove in and out, in another memorably evocative passage. “Chasqui” (Snap) saw the performance of various techniques, with a scurrying sound and pizzicato in the middle, followed by a passionate high melody and a pizzicato to end.

The longest of the movements is the fifth, titled “Canto de Velorio” (Song of a Wake). In this haunting movement, the cello (Jonathan Dormand, who also spoke about the piece to the audience) sang a mournful melody, together with very soft high-pitched violin notes. Later the violin took the melody, with the cello added. This combination, with punctuations (Dorothy Ro, second violin and Abigail Rojansky, viola) led to a fade at the end.

The much livelier “Coquetos” (two male flirts, we were told from the stage) ended the piece. The quartet emulated a hint of mariachi, parallel writing, and a Western-style melody. The clearer tonality of this movement brought the work to an upbeat conclusion. It is a work which, both from the experience of the music and from the compelling performance, one wanted to hear again.

After intermission, the quartet concluded the program with Beethoven’s epic Op. 131 in C-sharp minor. At nearly forty minutes, this monumental work stands as one of the great pieces in the quartet literature, and arguably one of the pinnacles of the 19th century. Beethoven had been an innovator since nearly the start of his career. This quartet, in its seven movements, including an opening fugue, shows the visionary Beethoven, already deaf for many years, writing music that took decades for musicians to understand and begin to play.

The Verona Quartet compellingly projected the scale and range of the material. The beginning, before the playing began, was notable. Ong, who would start the fugue, waited. Not because the audience was noisy; he waited for complete silence and an expectant hush to take over. Only then, with focused concentration emanating from the audience, did he issue the introspective subject of the opening fugue.

One could imagine more intensity of expression in this first movement; however, it still impressed with beauty of phrase and balance. The pathos-filled dissonances at the end of the movement were gripping. There were seamless transitions among the movements, and among the numerous, varied sections of the large-scale fourth movement, long enough to be a complete quartet in itself. The four musicians brought to life the lovely, wistful theme, and some almost laugh-out-loud humor, with tubbiness and evocation of a metronome which listeners may recognize from Beethoven’s eighth symphony. Trills reminiscent of Beethoven’s high-intensity Grosse Fuge punctuated the humor, here so very different in character. In the following Presto, the quartet’s performance emphasized rhythm over speed. There was delicate articulation and a whisper-soft sound – the type of sound which works wonderfully in the fine acoustics of Beckwith and is the province of the finest quartet players. In the Adagio, one continued to savor the perfect match among the parts, as also in the rhythmically driven last movement, played tightly and with propulsion.

This is a piece for discerning listeners. It is not in its nature to induce cheering at the end. Even so, a short, spirited encore would have been a nice addition after such a concentrated work. However, with no encore, the quartet treated this monument to the art of music as a musician’s musician might: a statement in itself. As with the rest of the program, the superb Verona Quartet left this listener wanting more.