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Marika Bournaki

GREENSBORO, NC – The Eastern Music Festival, housed on the Guilford College campus in Greensboro, NC, kicked off its 63rd season with an evening of chamber music Tuesday night. Two works from the mainstream 19th century Classical-Romantic repertoire (Beethoven and Brahms) as well as a delightful piece from the 21st century comprised the program.

The evening opened with a short introduction that included instructions for using the eco-friendly digital playbill which contained, among a myriad of information, detailed notes about the compositions by Dr. Cat Keen Hock. First up was Cello Sonata in C, Op. 102, No. 1 by Ludwig van Beethoven (Germany, 1770-1827). The performers were husband-wife duo Julian Schwarz (cello) and Marika Bournaki (piano).

Julian Schwarz

Beethoven wrote his last two Cello Sonatas (Op. 102) in 1815, a time in which he suffered from various maladies, including almost total deafness. They are precursors to this late style period, which includes his last five string quartets as well as the Ninth Symphony (Choral) and the Missa solemnis.

The sonata is unusual in that it is a two-movement work, and each movement begins with a slow introduction. The give and take between Schwarz and Bournaki was great, each taking the spotlight for important lines, the other stepping back. The opening movement Allegro is full of drama and passion, wonderfully presented by the two. The second movement’s introduction contains ethereal beauty while the Allegro here has some strange sections, both of which are hallmarks of the composer’s late style. To be sure, humor abounds as well. It was fantastic to hear such a complicated piece played with such understanding and musicality.

Sandwiched between the two beloved works by Beethoven and Brahms was the three-movement Piano Trio The Spirit and the Maiden (2004) by Elena Davidovna Kats-Chernin (Uzbekistan, b. 1957). The work provided a sparkling contrast to the heartier German fare. The composition was inspired by a Russian folk tale involving a young woman who is captured by a spirit who lives in a well. The performers: John Fadial (violin), Beth Vanderborgh (cello), Naoko Takao (piano).

The folk influence is present throughout the work. The first movement contains passages that conjure up rippling water. The second movement evokes enchanting music, while the third contains more melancholic tunes. The ending is soft, with harmonics and gently plucked strings, which provides an otherworldly effect. Ensemble among the three was first-rate, with Fadial and Vanderborgh (also a husband-wife team) playing with great sensitivity, color, and joy. Tanaka provided superb filigree as well as fiendishly difficult passages with flying fingers and finesse. Thanks to the musicians for introducing us to such a charming composition.

Johannes Brahms (Germany, 1833-97) wrote his Piano Quartet in G minor, Op. 25 between 1856 and 1891; it was premiered by Clara Schumann that same year. The work is in the traditional four-movement form of fast-slow-dance-fast. In Brahms’ hands, the second and third movement are interchanged: Allegro, Intermezzo-Trio, Andante, Rondo. Performing this magnificent piece was Giora Schmidt (violin), Chauncey Patterson (viola), Allan Steele (cello), and William Wolfram (piano) (who filled in at the last minute for an ailing Santiago Rodriguez).

The first movement begins mysteriously before breaking into more dramatic fare. This Allegro is chock-full of varying emotions, often turning on a dime; full-throated romanticism is at the fore. All four musicians were sensitive to the others, receding into the background, allowing individuals to step forward and present important ideas. The Intermezzo is a whirlwind of flying notes, practically perpetual motion; the Trio provides contrast.

The third slow movement begins with the strings playing a lovely tune (often in octaves, with piano accompaniment). Drama permeates the middle section. The last movement (a “gypsy” rondo) has been described as “one of the most difficult movements to perform in all of Brahms’s chamber music.” It features feisty tunes, often extremely virtuosic, and several cadenzas provide a showcase for the quartet. All four players performed the movement with dedicated commitment and fun fire – a tour-de-force performance. The nice-sized crowd leapt to its feet in appreciation.

The evening featuring nine performers gives testament to the depth of talent that lies within the Eastern Music Festival’s 60-member faculty. This weekend’s orchestra concert, “Celebration & Rhapsodies,” will be played both in Dana Auditorium on Saturday night as well as at Appalachian State University on Sunday. The guest soloist is the internationally renowned banjoist, Béla Fleck, who will play his take on George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.