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St. Matthias Episcopal Church stands in one of the oldest neighborhoods developed by African Americans in Asheville. Built c.1894-98 under the supervision of former slave James Vester Miller for a community of newly-freed slaves, the church is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. With its finely wrought wooden interior and small dimensions, it is a cozy performance space with excellent acoustics. Moreover, it’s become one of the main places in Asheville to hear chamber music regularly, played not by big-name professional artists, but local people.
The “First Sundays at St. Matthias” concert series is now in its 13th season. Spearheaded by cellist/organist Ron Lambe and the Asheville Chamber Players, the concerts have generated over the years enough money through free-will offerings to fund a variety of repairs to the historic church. The series has been so successful that there are now concerts almost weekly of every description, including a jazz series on second Sundays, and a third series for guest groups. People clearly want to hear the local talent in their vernacular and come to both play and support others.
This program featured Haydn’s String Quartet Op. 71, No. 1 in B-flat and Mendelssohn’s String Quintet No. 2 in B-flat, Op. 87. The performers were members of the St. Matthias string quartet: Brent Yingling and Judy Vlietstra, violins, Brenda Phetteplace, viola, and Ron Lambe, cello. Day Ann Emory played an additional viola part in the Mendelssohn.
Haydn’s quartets span some forty years, and through them can be traced his remarkable development as a first-rank composer. The three Op. 71 quartets were written in 1793 after the composer’s first trip to London. Haydn’s style throughout this quartet is graceful and elegant, with a busy first violin part. The first movement begins with five chords within a slow introduction, chords that return as punctuation at the end of the exposition. Phrase or motivic exchanges sounded like polite conversation among four equally interested parties. The aristocratic third movement minuet and trio is still there, not yet replaced by a faster scherzo. And in the fourth movement, there’s vintage, humorous Haydn, cloaked in a rich and varied style of chordal passages, imitative phrases, and jokes that return again and again within the rondo form. The ensemble clearly enjoyed the piece and conveyed their delight with nods and smiles.
Mendelssohn’s String Quintet of 1845, published posthumously as Op. 87, was one of only two such works by the composer. Much larger in scope and more dramatic than the Haydn, the piece was an intriguing amalgam of romantic utterance couched within a classical form. The Sturm und Drang of the declamatory first movement featured ascending arpeggios in the first violin that morphed into incisive motives in the other parts. The lyrical second movement, Andante scherzando, an ABA triple meter movement, ended in a pizzicato whisper. The mournful third movement Adagio e lento, the work’s soulful center, was where the ensemble’s concentration seemed to waver, as there were several intonation and ensemble problems. The finale, though not particularly liked by the composer, featured some interesting chromatic writing and pairings of instruments, especially the violas. Yingling, first violin, and Lambe anchored the ensemble literally from top to bottom.
It is refreshing to see such a commitment to community music-making supported in Asheville at a time when fewer and fewer people are learning to play instruments. Kudos to Ron Lambe and to all the musicians who play in the St. Matthias concerts for their enrichment of Asheville’s music scene.