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How many times have you ever heard both Brahms sextets on the same program? If your answer was a number other than zero, then you can claim membership in an exclusive club. Or perhaps you were simply present on a rainy evening at the Page-Walker Arts and History Center. There in the art-laden First Floor Gallery, members of the Brussels Chamber Orchestra and the North Carolina Symphony performed that unusual combination, constituting a notable new edition of the innovative Cross Currents Chamber Arts Festival. Representing the BCO were violinist Nana Kawamura, violist Neil Leiter and cellist Mario Villuendas. Collaborating from the NCS were violinist Dovid Friedlander, violist Christopher Fischer and cellist Bonnie Thron.
Speaking for the Festival, Carrie Knowles introduced the program and the performers. In what was an obvious case of bittersweet emotions, she exulted in the “pleasure” of being forced to turn away would-be attendees from a sold-out classical music program.
Observing the proper chronology, the players opened with the composer’s String Sextet No. 1 in B-flat, Op. 18. Here the NCS representatives assumed the “lead” roles, with the other three strongly supporting. In a departure from most chamber pieces, Fischer’s viola handled many of the more alluring melodies in the first two movements of this 1860 work. Although the printed program did not list the “theme and variations” aspect of the Andante movement, those lush melodies, so expertly traversed by the players, constitute one of the pinnacles of chamber music literature. Sparing no energy and sounding at times much like a small string symphony, they played as if they were still in one of their accustomed larger venues.
The “chairs” were reversed for the String Sextet No. 2 in G, Op. 36 (1865), after intermission. The BCO players generally led, with the locals supporting. In the opening Allegro non troppo, the cello themes were abundant and stirring. The Scherzo, placed second in this piece, was a serene dance leading up to the exciting Poco Adagio. In this movement the players demonstrated typical Brahmsian genius with the “high” strings (two violins and one viola) heralding a set of fugue-like variations as the others joined in. The movement then reached a most “un-adagio” frenzy, followed by a tranquil and calming conclusion.
By pairing these two pieces, the players have successfully shown the sonic and musical possibilities that arise by the addition of another viola and cello to the standard string quartet, with of course considerable assistance from Brahms!
The enthusiasm of the capacity audience was obvious for both of the evening’s works. They were doubtless aware of their debt to six consummate musicians who were able to subsume their individual talents into a powerful ensemble. That debt also extends to Credit Suisse Group (financial services) and to the Town of Cary for their generous sponsorship of these Festival programs.