Coping with crisisIt was truly wonderful to catch up once more with ECU‘s Four Season Chamber Music Festival, the latest offering of which focused on two estimable piano quartets, by Robert Schumann and Antonín Dvořák.

We don’t hear all that many piano quartets anymore – our loss – but this pair of works, Schumann’s Op. 47 (1842) and Dvořák’s second, Op. 87 (1889), both in E-flat, more than made up for the recent drought of pieces in this form at concerts, live or virtual. The former is one of the Romantic period’s most charming works, rich in the sort of all-enveloping warmth the composer projected when working during his happiest days. The latter speaks of the kind of inspired nationalism its composer sought to spark here, in America – it is positively drenched in wonderful folk-like melodies, most of which were however surely products of Dvořák’s fertile imagination.

The artists exemplify the brilliant musicians regularly engaged by artistic director Ara Gregorian for these programs, which constitute wonderful beacons of cultural light in Eastern NC: pianist Jeewon Park, ECU-based violinist Hye-Jin Kim, and cellist Edward Arron. Gregorian himself is musically ambidextrous: on this occasion, he played viola.

The production itself, streamed live from the stage of ECU’s A.J. Fletcher Recital Hall (yes, that A.J.: click here for details of his charitable work), was superb. We’ve seen a lot of streamed concerts during this dark pandemic year, and CVNC critics have reviewed a good many of them, but let’s just say, for openers, that this was the best yet, technically. Projected onto an HD screen, with theater sound, the picture and audio were magnificent, with zero transmission glitches(!). The movements’ tempi were identified as they began, the camera work was sufficiently varied to retain interest (with shots clearly chosen for their varying musical significance). There was some highly effective (but never over-done) picture-in-picture coverage of the pianist’s hands in virtuoso passages), and the sound was worthy of capture for immediate sale (as a benefit, of course…) on CD. Our only, very slight reservation was that Gregorian’s brief remarks between the two works were not adequately captured – perhaps he should have shed his mask for that bit or used a hand-held microphone. (What he said was important: that these artists have been playing at vaccination clinics in Greenville, and that they are getting on a truck and heading out soon to play live music for people in the flesh in all the towns regularly served by Four Seasons. Hooray!)

Short programs have become the norm in the past year, aside from ballet and opera repeats, but in this instance, two works were sufficient, given their rich variety and overall beauty. One may get from the Schumanns (Robert and Clara) to Dvořák via their mutual friend Brahms, so a snippet from his pen might have been in order, but who’s complaining? And what wasn’t to like? Such informed, animated, and infectious playing bespeaks the long work together of these artists. No conglomeration of “soloists” can pull off chamber music unity such as these folks consistently projected. They actually watched each other. They breathed together. Their phrasing was immaculate. There was not one tiny, tiny slip in intonation or a single miscue. This was as good as it gets.

Online, there is an informative 90-minute introduction, filmed on March 24; click here.

And there are virtual backstage chats following the performances (although how to access to the one on March 26 was not immediately apparent to this viewer).

The “repeat” on March 28, at 3:00 p.m., is actually a second performance of the program, to be streamed from Hayes Barton United Methodist Church in Raleigh. See the sidebar for details and tune in!