When Thomas Wolfe wrote You Can’t Go Home Again, he clearly did not have the Fry Street Quartet and Hickory in mind. The quartet’s triumphant return for this concert at the Catawba Valley Arts and Science Center can be likened to Vladimir Horowitz’s return to Moscow in 1986, or even Caesar’s, to Rome.

The Fry Street Quartet was Western Piedmont Symphony‘s first quartet-in-residence, coming to Hickory as a result of a grant from Chamber Music America. Following their three seasons with the orchestra – 1999-2000 to 2001-2002 – they have been the Faculty String Quartet in Residence at Utah State University in Logan, where they continue to perform and teach. They have also had a very successful European tour.

Founded in 1997 in Chicago, violinist Rebecca McFaul, violist Russell Fallstad, and cellist Anne Francis welcomed their newest member, violinist William Fedkenheuer, at the start of the 2006-2007 season. Mr. Fedkenheuer came to Fry Street after an eight-year tenure with the Borromeo String Quartet.

The program opened with the String Quartet in F, Op. 59/1, by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). This is the first of three string quartets composed at the request of Count Andreas Rasumovsky, the Russian Ambassador to Vienna. This was the beginning of Beethoven’s “Middle Period” in quartet writing. Here, he moved the string quartet from the private house to the concert hall, leaving the sphere of the amateur musician and going to that of the professional. Tonally, he was far away from the world of Haydn, who was still alive, and his thematic material strayed far afield of what had been traditional. The F Major quartet is in four movements: allegro, allegretto vivace, adagio, and allegro, the last movement built around a Russian theme.

Following intermission, Symphony Board President Tom Shields made a presentation of the Suzanne G. and Kenneth K. Millholand Symphony Award. This award was established by the Symphony Board several years ago to recognize the highest level of support for the Western Piedmont Symphony. The first award was made to the couple for whom it was named. The second award was made last year to Larry and Barbara Freiman. This year, the award went to Adam Neilly, a member of the Symphony board and ardent supporter of the Western Piedmont Symphony.

The final work on the program was Beethoven’s String Quartet in B-flat, Op. 130, the last composition he completed before his death. This massive work is a major departure from his previous string quartets. It is extremely long and has six movements. As originally written, the final movement is a Great Fugue. After the first performance, Beethoven’s publisher convinced him to discard the fugue and replace it with a more loosely constructed dance movement which he felt would fit better with the four preceding movements. Uncharacteristically, Beethoven agreed, and the Grosse Fugue was exiled as Opus 133.

Each of the six movements is of a different character, and they cover a wide range of moods and emotions. The first movement is an extensive contrast of fast and slow, loud and soft. There follow a brief presto, a formal andante (but not without its surprises), a dance in the German style, and a cavatina, which is a songlike instrumental piece, this one quite personal for Beethoven. It was almost one hundred years after its premiere when performers began to play the quartet in its original form, concluding with the Grosse Fugue. It is this version that the Fry Street Quartet played tonight.

It has been three years since I have heard the Fry Street Quartet play. In that span, their playing has certainly matured. They play as a single organism, living and breathing as one. They are like a fine automobile, well lubricated and tuned, all the parts perfectly synchronized and meshed, with a radiant polish and glow. In their performances Fry Street brings an unparalleled level of passion and excitement to chamber music, as was evidenced by the prolonged standing ovation accompanied by hooting and hollering and whistling — nothing staid and stodgy here!

Following this adulation came the surprise of the evening — the announcement of Western Piedmont’s next resident string quartet: the La Catrina String Quartet. The La Catrina String Quartet is now in residence at Kent State University in Ohio and will be moving to Hickory to play with the Western Piedmont Symphony for the next three years.

The La Catrina Quartet joined the Fry Street Quartet on stage to conclude the program with a rousing performance of the final presto/fugue of Felix Mendelssohn’s (1809-47) String Octet in E-flat, Op. 20.