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Musical gems flowed from beginning to end during the first Next Generation concert of the Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival's 2014-15 season, and a full house in the Fletcher Recital Hall on the East Carolina University campus seemed to enjoy just about every moment. Some of the gems were quite unexpected: a serenade for four cellos, for example, and a surprisingly dark piano quintet movement by César Franck. And some were simply shimmering: Edward Elgar's lovely Serenade for Strings, and a movement from Antonín Dvořák's String Sextet in A.
The program opened with a well-played reading of Handel's Concerto Grosso, Op. 6, No. 1, by an ensemble of nearly 30 ECU string faculty members, students, and string program alumni; and shortly thereafter came the first true gem and unexpected pleasure: Georg Goltermann's Serenade, Op. 119, No. 2, for four cellos. ECU Prof. Emanuel Gruber was joined in this 19th century work by students Logan Dailey and Emma Johnson and alumnus Christopher Nunnally, now orchestra director at Greenville Rose High School, who played in the recent Baroque & Beyond program in Chapel Hill in mid-October. While Gruber had the lead melody, which in itself was quite lovely, the three other musicians provided wonderfully rich and substantial harmonies. The quartet gave a fine performance of a piece that was way too brief but still was a program highlight.
Equally captivating was the more familiar Serenade for Strings in E Minor, Op. 20, by Elgar, played by the entire ensemble. This piece is another example of Elgar's gift for sheer melody, and the ensemble sparkled. A brief darker opening from violas, led by faculty member Jorge Richter, who also directs the ECU Symphony, quickly gave way to a much brighter and lighter sound in the opening Allegro piacevole movement. And the middle Larghetto movement was stunningly beautiful. The violins, led by Festival artistic director Ara Gregorian (first) and faculty member Hye-Jin Kim (second) created a cushion of melody, and the cellos, led by Gruber, created a cushion of support for the violins. Christopher Buddo, now dean of the ECU College of Fine Arts and Communication, and student Bryan Hansen used their basses to underpin the rest of the ensemble. The timing, dynamics, entrances, and cutoff were first-rate.
Other highlights were five Romanian folk dances by Béla Bartók, especially Gregorian's gypsy-ish solo lines in the third dance and the energetic hoedown-like liveliness of the fifth, and the piano-four-hands version of Claude Debussy's Petite Suite, featuring visiting pianist Robert McDonald, a frequent guest in Four Seasons Festival performances, and faculty pianist Keiko Sekino. In the latter piece, McDonald played the lower half of the keyboard and Sekino, the upper, and they complemented each other quite well. (One suspects that two people playing the same keyboard from a single piece of music – and staying perfectly together, even while occasionally crossing hands – is no easy task, certainly no easier than playing from two separate keyboards and two separate scores.) They conveyed well the gently rocking of "En Bateau" on the water, and they negotiated the livelier rhythms of "Cortège" and "Menuet" without difficulty. And the opening Allegro: moderato movement of Dvořák's String Sextet in A, Op. 48, was lovely, especially its song-like phrases at the beginning and its interesting mood shifts.
McDonald and Sekino helped bring the two-hour-plus program to a close in movements from three piano quintets by Franck, Dvořák, and Dmitri Shostakovich. The Franck work, the opening movement (Molto moderato quasi lento-Allegro) of his quintet in F Minor, is notable for its darkness and emotional and dramatic tension. There is no light and airy French-ness about this piece at all. McDonald's piano was a bold presence throughout, with several long solo lines, and Kim (first violin) and Gregorian (viola) were joined by alumna Caroline Cox (second violin) and student Logan Dailey (cello). Several long ascending phrases, some for piano, some for other combinations of instruments, had the effect of moving the listener toward the front of the chair in anticipation.
Sekino was pianist for two movements of Shostakovich's Piano Quintet in G Minor, Op. 57, with some quirky sections that contrasted nicely with the earlier and more traditional styles of Dvořák, for instance. Especially interesting was an eerie-sounding duet between Gregorian (violin) and Kim (viola). And the concert concluded with the familiar opening movement (Allegro ma non tanto) of Dvořák's Piano Quintet in A, Op. 81, which has been performed in its entirety in earlier Four Seasons concerts. This movement, which contains a melody line that suggests "Shall We Gather at the River," was played nicely by McDonald, Gregorian, Gruber, and students Mary Catherine Cox, violin, and Andrew Collins, viola.
This was a good concert to acquaint audiences with the overall excellence of the ECU Music School's string program, and audiences in western North Carolina, particularly in Boone and Charlotte, were to have the opportunity to discover the strengths of the program through concerts and master classes in the several days following this concert.