Charlotte Symphony principal cellist Alan Black has been an integral part of the local chamber music scene for so long that there isn’t a teenager alive who can remember when it all began. Violinist Rosemary Furniss’ stint as a Metrolina mainstay has been briefer and less robust by comparison, dating back to her husband Christopher Warren-Green’s assumption of the musical directorship with the Symphony. What Black and Furniss most admirably have in common, aside from their varied roles with the Charlotte Symphony and Davidson College, is a willingness to play subordinate roles for the sake of bringing great music to a larger audience. While pianist Phillip Bush held the spotlight in a Tyler-Tallman Hall concert that included Saint-Saëns’ Piano Trio No. 1 and Dvořák’ s mighty A Major Piano Quintet, the presence of both Black and Furniss added unquestionable luster to the performance and the event. Playing such supporting roles is supportive in the best possible way.
Furniss remained backstage for the first half of the program as Joseph Meyer, who would take the second violin chair for the Dvořák, joined Black and Bush for two trios. The geniality and liveliness of the opening Allegro vivace were manifest from the beginning, with a refreshing shimmer from the piano, spirit from Meyer’s violin, and a generous distribution of leading roles. We plumbed deeper waters in the ensuing Andante as Meyer and Black both played ardently after Bush delicately announced the theme. All three players had their turn at the forefront as the solemnity intensified, with the hypnotic flow sustained by Bush carrying the strings along until those eloquent passages where the piano elaborates on the strings’ laments. Bush reveled in the playful spirit of the Scherzo, shifting dynamics with a spontaneous abruptness bent on mischief. The final Allegro bristled with contrasts, smoothly streaming and as soothing as a lullaby before veering suddenly into spiky passages and then circling back to the same soothing stream. These two strands kept intersecting more and more dramatically until the unexpected climax. Even the acclaimed Florestan Trio recording of the piece doesn’t fully convey the magic, captured live by this trio, of that congress of string pizzicatos and keyboard staccatos.
A programmatic trio by Joaquín Turina, Circulo certainly isn’t cryptically titled, beginning with a dawn movement and ending in twilight. Within that circle, the Spaniard had a couple of surprises up his melodic sleeve. The opening Lento was a conventional enough aubade, Black sketching a dark foreboding over some murky piano chords before Meyer brought in the daylight, a twittering welcome for it, and then the full sunshine. One long silken note from Meyer ushered us into the Mediodia middle section before the violinist came to the forefront and engaged in some speeded close harmonies with Black, redirected into repose and then reanimated by Bush. The borderline between the second and third movements, played attacca, remained mysterious even when I replayed the trio on Spotify on my computer. It occurs during an extended speed-up, before the piano reprises the opening to the midday movement. With Black taking the lead as the music faded toward sunset, this trio took a far more aggressive approach to the postlude than I heard on the Meadowmount Trio rendition. Instead of a moody, listless aftermath, the music reawakened with Bush-Meyer-Black, evoking a tropical nightclub where accordions – nicely approximated by Turina’s strings – might be playing Tin Pan Alley tunes as couples danced the tango.
Coursing with spirit and melodic invention, Dvořák’ s Piano Quintet is an ambitious journey that is passionate, festive, and tender by turns, conveying the composer’s Czech soul and his characteristic string quartet sound. Assuming the first chair, Furniss led a cohesive quartet that sounded finely sculpted when the opening Allegro reached its climax. She also excelled when called upon to play the lyrical expositions, echoing the leisurely theme played by Black at the outset as well as the second slow subject introduced by Rebekah Newman, who had more to do on viola than simply blending in. After making his presence felt in the sudden splashdowns and accelerations of the opening movement, Bush showed a beautiful touch introducing the familiar “Nature Boy” theme of the ensuing Dumka. Newman and Furniss introduced another slow theme that the violinist spiritedly steered to an up-tempo episode before we returned to the haunting piano theme. Black played a heartfelt lament until the other string players flipped the somber mood to jollity, and Newman had some telling dark moments leading up to the beautifully reflective ending. Bush began the Scherzo at a nicely controlled gallop, leaving ample room for the dramatic acceleration that followed. A calm cooling-off ensued, with Bush’s pellucid triplets egging the ensemble back into merriment, Furniss’s violin figuring prominently in the high spirits. Yet another few notches of intensity were left for the allegro Finale as the ensemble played with effervescent crispness. Were it not for the presence of the piano, one might imagine that Dvořák was intent on recreating the purposeful verve we find in the most triumphant of Beethoven’s middle quartets, with Furniss particularly liberated to slash away at her instrument. The violinist also caressed a tender valedictory preceding a final outbreak of festive melody that she and Bush shaped into a satisfying affirmation.