The Western Piedmont Symphony continued its Chamber Classics Series with a concert featuring the resident Degas Quartet on Saturday, October 29, at the Arts and Science Center of Catawba Valley in Hickory. Works of Bliss, Mozart, and Dvorák were presented.

The Oboe Quintet by Sir Arthur Bliss (1891-1975) opened the program. Joining the Degas Quartet – James Dickenson and Tamaki Higashi, violins, Simon Értz, viola, and Philip von Maltzahn, cello – was oboist Petrea Warneck. She has performed extensively with orchestras and chamber groups throughout the Carolinas, and she is presently a member of the South Carolina Philharmonic and teaches at the University of South Carolina.

Bliss was one of the leading English composers of the first half of the 20th century. He studied under Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst. His early music was largely experimental and heavily influenced by Stravinsky and Debussy. Although he never totally abandoned this type of music, his later works followed a more classical form, of which the three-movement oboe quintet is an early example.

The first movement begins with a lyrical theme that is interrupted by an energetic agitato and then dies away. The second movement is pastoral, with a lament-like section leading to a faster, rhythmic phase. The third movement incorporates the fast-moving Irish dance tune “Connelly’s Jig.” Although the work is sonically complex, one can discern a number of themes. It was expertly written, with virtuoso players in mind, and it was with virtuosity that it was performed on this occasion. The oboe is part of the ensemble, rather than a solo instrument; Ms. Warneck played with the agility and sweetness of tone required for this piece, as did the strings.

Next came Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s String Quartet in G, K.387. It is the first of a group of six quartets which he dedicated to Haydn, writing “Here then, great man and my dearest friend, are my six children…, the fruit of a long and difficult labour….” This quartet marks the beginning of Mozart’s mature period. To the casual listener, it may appear to be lighter fare than the aforementioned oboe quintet, but it is no less complex, and it may well be the most richly developed in musical material Mozart had written to date. All four movements are equally rich in content and development, surpassing any of his symphonies written up to this time.

Starting with a very intricately written first movement, the quartet proceeds to a rhythmic minuet movement, followed by a slow, lyrical andante cantabile and ending in a fast movement that concludes with an elaborate fugue. All of this elaborate writing, of course, requires elaborate playing, and in this, the Degas Quartet did not disappoint – each member played the intricate rhythms and chromatic lines with clarity and dexterity.

Concluding the program was the Piano Quintet in A, Op. 81, by Antonín Dvorák (1841-1904). He was one of the greatest of the Czech composers, but he considered himself just “a simple Bohemian musician”. The Quintet is a reworking of an earlier piano quintet with which he had not been happy. In this performance, pianist Barbara McKenzie collaborated with the Degas Quartet. A native of North Carolina, she has concertized extensively around the world, and currently lives in Wilmington, where she is very active in artistic endeavors.

The piano quintet is the pinnacle of Dvorák’s chamber music, expertly bringing together two musical traditions: the Classical-Romantic sonata tradition of Western European origin and the Czech folk tradition, which persistently characterized his compositions. This fusion of East and West, the zest of folk music coupled with Classical-Romantic formalism, is what constitutes Dvorák’s musical language. The strings and piano carried out their tasks with aplomb, and the performance was a tribute to one of the great masterpieces of chamber music.

Once again, the Degas Quartet and assorted friends have provided a wonderful musical evening. To use a well-known quote, “They have what it takes,” and the audience showed its appreciation with a well-deserved standing ovation.

Note: The Degas Quartet’s schedule is posted in the WPS’ series tab.

*We are pleased to welcome Dr. Cochran to CVNC. His reviews have appeared in the Salisbury Post and Outlook, published by Observer News Enterprise (Newton, NC).