A Greenville audience got its first look at and listen to the dynamic Daedalus Quartet, with new violinist Ara Gregorian from East Carolina University sitting in, and liked what it saw and heard. But the first of two "Next Generation" concerts that are part of the 2010-11 Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival also showed the audience (a nearly full house at Fletcher Recital Hall on the ECU campus) that the next generation of classical musicians is receiving some good training and can produce some fine music, too.
The concert opened with 21 string players — 15 students along with faculty, an outstanding ECU graduate and the four quartet members — in a lovely reading of Mozart's Divertimento for Strings in D, K.136. The stage was crowded, but the music was not constrained in any way. And if the thought of 15 string students playing together creates an image of small children attacking "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" at the end of Suzuki training, this was light years beyond that, a different universe entirely. These are some of ECU's best student musicians, and they played with assurance, skill and complete control over the score, and without a conductor, too. The first allegro movement, one of Mozart's more familiar melodies, was offered with a smooth, even luxurious, sound in both rapid bowing and more legato passages. The slower second andante movement came with nice dynamic contrasts, and the third presto movement was both brightly played and quickly paced. No thinness of sound at all, no pitch or intonation problems, and entrances and cutoffs were precise.
Gregorian programmed four allegros from familiar chamber pieces, using different students or combinations of students in each of the ensembles, along with faculty and/or Daedalus Quartet members. It did not appear that the older players cut the younger players any slack; each piece was well played, with the students performing as integral and accomplished members of each ensemble.
The allegro non troppo from Brahms' Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34, for example, featured pianist Keiko Sekino from the faculty, Gregorian and Jessica Thompson from the quartet, ECU graduate Weipeng Liu on cello and student Katherine Dennis on second violin. (Liu is an award-winning cellist now at Yale University who was a master's degree student with Janos Starker.) The allegro from Mozart's String Quintet in G minor, K. 516, was played by violinist Min-Young Kim and cellist Raman Ramakrishnan from the quartet, faculty member Melissa Reardon on viola and students Liz Upson on violin and Andrew Minguez on viola. Both pieces were marked by a wonderful blend of instrumental sound. The Brahms allegro wore its passion and romance on the collective sleeve of the players; the Mozart allegro was vivacious, often dance-like, and Kim carried off the considerable demands placed on the first violin with great energy and skill.
The allegro brillante from Schumann's Piano Quintet in E-flat, Op. 44, included a wonderfully expressive cello line from faculty member Emmanuel Gruber that reappeared frequently during the movement and nice interplay between Sekino's piano and the other players, including student Chris Ferrara on violin.
The final allegro on the program was the best of all, the allegro moderato ma con fuoco from Mendelssohn's String Octet in E-flat, Op. 20.Gregorian, Kim, Reardon and Ramakrishnan were joined by Liu and students Caroline Cox and John Spence on violin and Stephen Luerhman on viola. The movement featured gorgeous playing from start to finish, and this would have been a wonderful way to end such a wonderful program—except that the Daedalus Quartet had not performed on its own up to this point.
So Gregorian, Thompson, Kim and Ramakrishnan brought the two hours of splendid music-making to a close with one of the best known pieces in the repertoire, Schubert's String Quartet in D minor, D. 810, "Death and the Maiden." From its coarse, almost ugly, opening, through the sublime theme and variations of the second andante movement to the lively presto closing, this composition embodies for many what a string quartet should be — expansive and intimate, highly intense and delicate, bold and subtle, a piece filled with seamless ensemble playing and occasional brilliant solos.
And the Daedalus Quartet's reading of the music was, by turns, expansive and intimate, highly intense and delicate, bold and subtle. The second andante movement was especially lovely, with Ramakrishnan's cello taking such a prominent role in its frequent statements of the main theme, which bears striking resemblance to the allegretto from Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. But there were moments of considerable power, too. The final presto movement started out like a horse race, and rarely has Gregorian seemed so fierce in his playing as he did in some of the forte passages.
This performance, however, did have the misfortune of coming less than two months after a stunning performance of the same work by the Takacs Quartet in ECU's S. Rudolph Alexander Performing Arts Series. Gregorian also programmed the quartet just over a year ago as part of a Four Seasons Festival performance (interestingly, with Ramakrishnan as cellist). Too much of a good thing? Probably not; and this performance generated its own special pleasures — one audience member remarked after the performance he expected to see smoke rising from the players' strings during the Schubert — and it certainly generated warm audience response.