Lightning can strike twice on occasion, and such an occasion was the pair of back-to-back concerts performed in the Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival in early November. Drawing on the talents of East Carolina University faculty members, top string students and alumni, and guest performers, artistic director Ara Gregorian put together two splendid programs of chamber music presented before capacity audiences at A.J. Fletcher Recital Hall.
In a concert called "Four Seasons Features," Vivaldi's popular Four Seasons concerti were paired with Astor Piazzolla's Four Seasons of Buenos Aires pieces, an interesting, even inspired, programming idea. Gregorian and his colleagues and students gave impressive readings of the familiar Baroque works and of the less-well-known mid-1960s version by the Argentine composer. Principal guest performers were violinists Ida Kavafian and Hagai Shaham, both of whom have played in previous Four Seasons concerts; they shared solo violin spotlights with Gregorian and Hye-Jin Kim. More than two dozen faculty and student musicians made up the accompanying chamber orchestra.
After opening with a nicely-played Concerto for Four Violins in D by Telemann – a violin quartet without an orchestra – the players alternated Vivaldi and Piazzolla concerti. The Vivaldi shone, sparkled, and dazzled in the hands of these capable performers. The violin leads and solos – from Shaham's scintillating triplets in the "Spring" concerto to his emotional duet with cellist Emmanuel Gruber in the "Autumn" concerto, and from Ms. Kim's softest pianissimo line in the lovely adagio movement of the "Summer" concerto to Ms. Kavafian's solo line and gorgeous ornamentation in the largo movement of the "Winter" concerto – elevated these familiar standards that too often have become little more than background music. The accompanying string orchestra of students and faculty members was both lush and taut, with fine entrances, cutoffs, crescendos, and decrescendos.
Gregorian played solo violin in two Piazzolla pieces, "Winter" and "Spring." Ms. Kim played solo in "Summer," and Ms. Kavafian was soloist in "Autumn." These are interesting and often joyful pieces, definitely in the modern idiom and not replicas or reproductions of Vivaldi's works. The tango rhythm is evident in three of the pieces, and only small portions of a Vivaldi melody line (barely more than a fragment) can be heard now and again, especially the droll harpsichord line that brings the "Spring" piece to a close.
But the pieces also contain some unusual scoring, most notably the opening of "Autumn," in which Ms. Kavafian's squeaky, ghostly notes and eerily fingered slides up the neck of the instrument gave way to a lengthy cello solo, beautifully played by Gruber. This piece seems the least tango-based and in fact has some jazzy sections that are reminiscent of Gershwin, perhaps with a faint Latin layer applied. Ms. Kavafian met the considerable technical demands of the piece with room to spare.
Vivaldi's Four Seasons concerti, perhaps along with Bach's Brandenburg concerti, can suffer from being heard too often, if not in concert then certainly on the radio, and those who play these pieces must be careful to avoid setting themselves on autopilot. The playing in all four concerti at East Carolina University was top drawer. The allegros were lively without being pushed too fast; the largos and adagios were played with considerable feeling and emotion, without being overly dramatic. We've heard the melodies many times before, but this was a live performance worth savoring. And contrasting them with Piazzolla's 20th century compositions – quite well played in their own right – only enhanced the enjoyment.
The next afternoon, with largely the same group of musicians, the Four Seasons Festival presented the first Next Generation concert of the 2013-14 season, and the professors, students, alumni and guest performers offered up nearly two hours of chamber music consisting primarily of opening allegro movements from several larger pieces, as well as the Vivaldi and Piazzolla "Autumn" concerti from the previous program.
The program spanned the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, starting with the Allegro, ma non tanto, movement from Dvořák's Piano Quintet in A, Op. 81, with Keiko Sekino as pianist, and closing with the Allegro moderato, ma con fuoco, from Mendelssohn's Octet in E-flat, Op. 20. In between were the Allegro vivace from Mendelssohn's String Quintet in B-flat, Op. 87, and the Allegro, ma non troppo, from Brahms' String Sextet in B-flat, Op. 18. Gregorian also programmed six of the 44 Duos for Two Violins by Béla Bartók with four played as chamber orchestra pieces, and two played as duets.
The Dvořák allegro (with Gregorian and alumna Elizabeth Ivy, violins; Xiao-Dong Wang of the Concertante chamber ensemble, viola; and student C.J. Collins, cello, along with Ms. Sekino) begins with a somber melody that imparts a faint echo of "Shall We Gather at the River" in the initial piano-cello line before moving into a full-bodied section. The melody returns at least two more times in this gem of a movement, with lovely soft passages mixed in with high-energy passages.
The Allegro from the Mendelssohn quintet is a richly-scored piece that received an excellent reading from Shaham and violin student Amelia Dietrich, cello student R. Jesse Smith, viola student Marta Lambert and Gregorian (playing viola), while the Brahms Allegro was perhaps the emotional highlight of the entire concert. With Ms. Kim and Ms. Kavafian, violins, Wang and student Benjamin Smith, violas, and Gruber and alumnus Christopher Nunnally, cellos, this early Brahms piece fairly sang with intense emotion, and the closing passage, an ascending line played on plucked violins and violas, was beautiful in its simplicity. The Mendelssohn octet movement was first-rate. Gruber's playing, by the way, brought refined elegance to each piece in which he played, on both days.
The Bartók duos were nicely played, too, most notably the "Transylvanian Dance," featuring Ms. Kim and Ms. Kavafian, who exchanged double-stopped leads in a near-hoedown, and the "Prelude and Canon," in which Gregorian and Shaham negotiated ghostly harmonies and near-dissonance to good effect.
The Four Seasons Festival continues all year. For details, see our calendar.