The Western Piedmont Symphony presented the fourth concert of its Chamber Classics series at the Catawba Valley Arts and Science Center in Hickory. This performance, featuring the Vega String Quartet, presented the last of four quartets to audition to be in residence in Hickory for the next three years.

The Vega String Quartet is currently the Quartet-in-Residence at Emory University in Atlanta, where they teach and perform. The quartet members are Blanka Bednarz and Jessica Wu, violins, Yinzi Kong, viola, and Guang Wang, cello. They have been described as being on the cutting edge of a new generation of chamber music ensembles, and have performed throughout the United States, as well as in Paris, Cologne, Korea, Tokyo, Mexico City, and Vancouver.

To describe the entire concert as “dissonant” could be misleading to the reader, and perhaps off-putting to a prospective audience, but it was, indeed, just that – but in a good way.

The program opened with String Quartet in C Major, K. 465, “Dissonance”, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91). This is the last of six quartets that Mozart dedicated to the composer Franz Joseph Haydn, and is so-called because of its mysterious dissonant harmonics that make up the Adagio introduction of the first movement. Mozart never explained why he used such a controversial mood to open this quartet, but he continued with hints of dissonance throughout all four movements, especially in the second, slow movement, and in the fourth, allegro, movement. The Vega Quartet provided a suitable dark and brooding opening, continuing throughout the piece with clarity, precision, and verve.

“Italian Serenade” for string quartet by Hugo Wolf (1860-1903) completed the first half of the program. Wolf was an Austrian composer of Slovenian descent, and was best known for his Lieder, or art songs. Many of his works were either lost or not published until after his death, often in abridged or revised form. He used tonality to reinforce meaning in his music, using chromaticism and dissonance to obscure his melodic destination for as long as the tension could be sustained. The “Italian Serenade” is considered the first work of his mature period, and was later arranged by the composer for full orchestra. This orchestral version has often been mistakenly considered the original. The work is designed as a free rondo, with many figures like a dance, and is full of the chromatic phrases for which Wolf was known. Here the Vega Quartet really came alive, playing with great enthusiasm and feeling.

It is probably not too often that a string quartet by Bela Bartok (1881-1945) could be considered the highlight of a chamber music concert, but this was just the case. Bartok was a Hungarian composer, and is considered one of the greatest composers of the 20th century. He showed great interest in Hungarian folk music as a thematic basis for his music. His String Quartet No. 1, Op. 7, presented here, was composed in 1909, and is in three movements, played without a break. Bartok described the first movement as a funeral dirge, and it is intensely contrapuntal and chromatic. The following two movements are progressively faster, and the mood becomes lighter, ending quite happily. It was in this piece that the Vega Quartet showed its real oomph and passion, concluding with a rousing standing ovation by the audience.

The difficult choice of naming the quartet that will be in residence with the Western Piedmont Symphony is now up to a selection committee. The decision will be difficult, but regardless of which is chosen, Hickory and the orchestra cannot lose.