By and large, whenever there's a blizzard along the NE corridor, Tar Heels prefer being somewhere else - like home. This thought recurred several times during a wonderful chamber music program in Smedes Parlor (recently rechristened Smedes-Emory Parlor), at Saint Mary's School, presented by ECU's Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival as part of its burgeoning outreach program. And the reason thoughts of blizzards enlivened perceptions of Schubert, Brahms, and Fauré was that the program's distinguished visiting guest artist was pianist Robert McDonald, of Juilliard (and also Curtis) - who was probably very happy to be here, in NC, rather than there, in the snow.
Saint Mary's has a wonderful concert series of its own, offering richly varied free programs by fine artists, but this event wasn't formally part of it. The ticketed concert was sponsored in the beautiful, intimate parlor by long-time Four Seasons benefactors Tracy and Henry Smith to help launch a further extension, on a regular basis, of the Greenville-based series. Four Seasons has, in the past 13 years, become one of the leading cultural lights of Eastern NC, and under the leadership of Artistic Director and violinist Ara Gregorian it is continuing to expand its horizons, adding a series in New Bern and run-outs to Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and Hickory.
The concert began with one of Schubert's charming piano duets, the sparkling Rondo in D, D.608, played by McDonald and his former student, ECU-based pianist Keiko Sekino. The composer is famous for his "Symphony of Heavenly Length"; this piece is of a more modest scale, so one might call it the "Rondo of Tolerable Length." It manages not to wear out its welcome in the least, and the dazzling playing of Sekino and McDonald brought it to vibrant life.
There followed the "sprawling, gorgeously beautiful" Piano Quartet No. 2, in A, Op, 26, by Brahms - the quote stemming from Gregorian's introductory comments. This is true. It's about 50 minutes of knock-you-down-and-leave-you-gasping-for-breath late German Romanticism that might well have worn out the players had they not been so exhilarated by the music. Their incisive and enthusiastic approaches, collectively, made this performance something to savor. There was so much excitement, indeed, that McDonald, for one, sang along at times, shifting the balance and the focus, too, to his fifth voice, but mostly in ways favorably reminiscent of Glenn Gould or Arturo Toscanini. There were at the outset some balance and dynamics issues in the exceedingly lively hall; with the piano lid up and a powerhouse pianist at its bench, the keyboard seemed unduly prominent at first, the cello, unduly hard to discern. Things leveled out as the music unfolded, and it was therefore not long before the substantial crowd was completely in the thrall of the musicians - McDonald, Gregorian, violist Xiao-Dong Wang, and cellist Zvi Plesser. (Incidentally, the string players are all members of the chamber ensemble Concertante, which has visited our state several times and which returns next season for a Raleigh engagement.)
Following a longish intermission, McDonald returned with the ensemble for Fauré's evergreen Piano Quartet No. 1, in C minor, Op. 15, perhaps the best known and most loved of the great French composer's chamber works. (The composer was the subject of a remarkable "Focus on …" festival at UNCG last May, for details of which, click here.) This music is a good deal lighter and at first encounter more engaging than the Brahms. The ensemble and balances were consistently good from the start, the playing was infectious, and the response was warm and heartfelt. It's music that's very easy to love, and the affection with which these musicians showered it - coupled, of course, with their virtually flawless playing - made this work one that the appreciative audience will likely long remember.
The expansion of the Four Seasons programs into Piedmont and Western NC raises a question: has the center of gravity for string playing and teaching begun to shift east? Last summer, the University of North Carolina School of the Arts lost long-time faculty violinist Joseph Genualdi to the University of Missouri (Kansas City), and then UNC Chapel Hill's long-time violinist Richard Luby died unexpectedly on January 29. As Gertrude Stein might have said (and did, in another context), there wasn't much stellar there there in Greenville, violin-wise, till Gregorian landed. There's more there now, with oodles of offerings from ECU (and in the Greenville area, apart from the university) plus chamber music programs in Wilmington and Morehead City and orchestras in Rocky Mount and Wilmington. Raleigh and cities to the west have long enjoyed culture - and have long drawn audiences from the Coastal Plain. Perhaps now is the time for all the groundwork that's been laid Down East to coalesce in some major advances in the arts and a shift in focus toward the coast. If that's the case, it would appear that Gregorian and Four Seasons are ideally positioned to capitalize on the changes going on.