There’s more chamber music in North Carolina in the summertime than one might imagine. There are of course offerings from mainline presenters (Duke Performances, Pan Harmonia in Asheville, and the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild) and chamber events put forward as adjuncts to orchestral programs at music camps and festivals (Eastern Music Festival and Brevard) or as relatively small parts of regular summer series that offer bits and pieces intended to appeal to far broader tastes (such as the Appalachian Summer Festival). Beyond these, there are five organizations concentrating exclusively on chamber music in the summertime. The senior one is the Highlands-Cashiers Chamber Music Festival, which this year runs from July 8 through August 14 in, well, Highlands and Cashiers. Still to come is Winston-Salem’s Carolina Summer Music Festival,produced by the Carolina Chamber Symphony Players, which starts the day HCCMF ends and runs though August 27, and  the Carolina Chamber Music Festival, offering concerts in New Bern and Morehead City during the second week of September. (The other two, already completed for this summer, are Cary’s Cross Currents Chamber Music Arts Festival and the Swannanoa Chamber Music Festival.)

The Highlands-Cashiers Chamber Music Festival celebrates its 30th anniversary this summer with a spectacular season of appealing programs by distinguished visiting artists, coordinated by Artistic Director and pianist William Ransom, who hangs his hat during the rest of the year at Emory University in Atlanta. Nearly all the concerts are offered twice, at the festival’s home base at the Highlands Performing Arts Center and in the auditorium of the Albert Carlton Library, a smaller, more intimate venue, in nearby Cashiers. The area is one of our state’s most attractive regions in the southwestern mountains where relatively lower temperatures and humidity provide welcome relief for folks usually gripped by far less pleasant conditions back home. For chamber music enthusiasts with sufficient time on their hands, this wonderful little festival can provide something akin to total immersion for whole weeks – or more.

One of the summer’s major events were two concerts involving a whole host of distinguished soloists and chamber artists in a “Festival Chamber Orchestra” program devoted to the music of Bach, Barber, and Vivaldi. The performance we heard, in Cashiers, was completely sold out – a happy thing, indeed, in the chamber music business, but in this instance completely understandable, given the participants and the program. Those participants were headlined by William Preucil, long-time Concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra, and Kate Ransom, whose principal affiliation is with the Serafin String Quartet – she is the sister of HCCMF AD William Ransom. The core of the orchestra was the Vega String Quartet, of Emory University, and the additional players were Eun Sun Lee and Adda Kridler, violins, Karen Bentley Pollick, viola, Charae Krueger, cello, Douglas Sommer, bass, and Timothy Albrecht, harpsichord. (I mention all the names because of the likelihood that some of these folks will turn up in other programs our readers will be attending.) Any way one cuts it, this is a high-powered collection of artists and they demonstrated their individual and collective skills in no uncertain terms throughout this concert.

The program began with Bach’s Concerto in D minor, S.1043, for two violins, with Ransom and Preucil doing the solo honors. The wonderful work, beloved of music lovers everywhere, was given an intense reading distinguished by incisive playing from all concerned. Ransom alone seemed to avoid constant vibrato, making her contribution virtually the only nod to the historically-informed movement. There are of course many ways to perform Bach, and this rendition worked admirably within the context of the high-tech ensemble. The slow movement projected moments of reflection but for the most part this was a brisk reading of the concerto, full of energy, one that in turn infused the audience with excitement and admiration.

Barber’s Adagio for Strings, the slow movement of the composer’s String Quartet, Op. 11 (a work too rarely heard in its entirety), was arranged for string orchestra in 1938, at the request of Arturo Toscanini. It has become the ubiquitous memorial piece for all occasions; here, it served as a tribute to all the now-departed HCCMF patrons and supporters who helped make this festival what it has become. Preucil and Ransom joined the ensemble for the performance. It began a bit too boldly, diminishing somewhat the impact of the slow crescendo to the intense mid-point of the score, but overall this was a powerful and moving musical experience.

The second half of the concert was devoted to a complete performance of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. The poems that accompany the score were given in English paraphrases in the HCCMF’s substantial and handsome program book, helping guide listeners who may not have been familiar with the four concerti. Preucil was the exceptional soloist, not only navigating the score but also embellishing many sections with always-tasteful ornamentation (especially in the encore, a repeat of the slow movement of “Winter”). There were many exceptional touches in this bracing performance, often conspicuously abetted by Preucil’s engagement with the music and the participating artists, too. There were exceptional and frequent contributions from cellist Charae Krueger, the work of violist Karen Bentley Pollick was both prominent and distinguished in the slow movement of “Summer,” and harpsichordist Timothy Albrecht was a delight to hear, when he could be heard. Little moss grew on this reading, which – like the Bach – was a high-tension traversal of the score. Like the Bach, this music was received with tremendous enthusiasm by the crowd – the audience gave the artists a standing ovation that, in this instance, was most richly deserved.

This gem of a festival is somewhat overshadowed by nearby programs in Brevard, but no chamber music enthusiast should overlook the HCCMF’s concerts and ancillary offerings. The music continues through August 14. See our calendar for details.