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The venerable Chamber Arts Society launched its season with a September 22 Reynolds Theater concert by Opus One, a stellar piano quartet whose members are distinguished artists best known, till now, for their accomplishments elsewhere. Anne-Marie McDermott has loomed large at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston and performed here with regional orchestras; she is described in her biography, reprinted in the program, as a "boldly emotive pianist," a phrase that suits her playing style to a T. Violinist Ida Kavafian's credits include lots of concerts with her sibling, Ani, affiliations with TASHI, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and the Beaux Arts Trio, and numerous orchestral engagements around the globe. Her other half, violist Steven Tenenbom, shares similar credits and distinctions; aside from Opus One, his major affiliation at the moment is with the Orion String Quartet. Peter Wiley, the new cellist of the Guarneri String Quartet, has been one of the major movers and shakers at Marlboro since 1971 and, like his colleagues, is a world-class player on the world's stages.
Toss four superstars together for a gig and you may or may not get inspired music making. In this instance, the playing was exemplary and the mix, based on audience response, was outstanding. The program began with Ned Rorem's "Autumn Music," for violin and piano. It was composed in 1997 for an international competition, but Kavafian and McDermott gave the first official public performances, in Washington and New York, on which occasions Opus One was concurrently launched. The piece was of course not intended as a specific memorial work, but it begins with what struck this listener as a powerfully sculpted, brooding solo violin section, and the ensuing interplay between the two instruments spoke immediately to the heart and soul, evoking thoughts of our strongest national music. Rorem is best known as a songwriter, and his intense lyricism is constantly evident in this powerful, recent piece.The balance of the program was devoted to piano quartets by Fauré and Dvorak. Curiously, the second such work by each was given. The French piece is much less familiar than his C Minor Piano Quartet; Op. 45, in G Minor, is an expansive and brooding work that spoke on this occasion with the same sort of immediacy as the Rorem. Dvorak's more ebullient E-Flat Piano Quartet, Op. 87, was dazzling, and its generally uplifting mood was just the thing to reassure those who continue to seek solace after our recent national tragedies. At the end of this already generous program, the artists offered the slow movement from one of Brahms' Piano Quartets, dedicating it to the memory of the victims of the September 11 attacks. It was an emotional high point in a program that was from start to finish one of the most moving chamber concerts presented here in a long time.The Chamber Arts Society's program notes were contributed by Kavafian herself, Robert Orledge and Candace Bailey, of NCCU. The hall was nearly full, and the audience was constantly engaged, but the hackers were out in force, making one think that providing cough drops in all area lobbies might be a good investment. Maybe the drug companies would donate them as a marketing ploy.
The Society is functioning once more under the leadership of Ruth Blum, who had "retired" in favor of Director Robert Bryant. The latter then took a sabbatical for the current season. The group is in good hands.All that said, we must add our observation that McDermott is better heard than seen. She's a bundle of nervous energy whose "boldly emotive" playing was often distracting. In addition, she frequently dominated the ensemble, often overwhelming her partners and the venue itself. That's ok when the music permits it, but the net result too often obliged her listeners to focus on her, personally, as opposed to the music, as a unified entity. That she is brilliant and that her playing was without evident blemish helped immeasurably, of course--there's no question about her technical prowess or her artistry. The approach she took in Durham would be better suited to concertos with full orchestras. We'd have preferred a whole lot more volume and richness from Wiley and a whole lot less percussive tone from McDermott. For the record, McDermott will play Mendelssohn's Concerto No. 1 with the NC Symphony on October 19-20, and Tenenbom returns with the Orion String Quartet for a Chamber Arts Society concert on October 13.