In the 40 chamber music movements played by nearly 40 young musicians and faculty members over three concerts, the adagios and andantes won out over the allegros and scherzos, though not by much. Not that there was any kind of competition going on, mind you. It's just that the softer and more contemplative musical compositions seemed to resonate more profoundly with the audience during the second annual Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival Winter Workshop at East Carolina University's Fletcher Recital Hall.
Festival artistic director Ara Gregorian introduced the idea of a workshop last year, inviting applications from young musicians to study and play for a week, and then perform before an audience in small ensembles that include at least one faculty member. The faculty came from both ECU and outside.
Last year, 19 students were selected; this year, 29 students were selected (from 170 applicants), including several with North Carolina connections. The majority of participants were foreign born but are studying in the United States, notably at Yale University, Juilliard School, New England Conservatory, Peabody Conservatory and Curtis Institute. Six had participated in the inaugural workshop last year.
Featuring a repertoire leaning heavily toward 19th century composers, the concerts generally included pairs of movements from mainly piano quartets and quintets, as well as string quartets and quintets. The entire Brahms Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34 was presented – split in half between two concerts and played by two different sets of musicians. Nearly all pieces have been part of Four Seasons Festival repertoire in past years.
Now the hard part. How does one select the highlights of such an undertaking, when there were so many terrific performances producing so many highlights?
First, from among the slower movements:
*The Adagio from Beethoven's String Quartet in F, Op. 18, No. 1, in which Gregorian on viola was joined by violinist Suliman Tekalli (Orlando, Fla.), violinist Zenas Hsu (San Jose, Cal., New England Conservatory) and cellist Javier Iglesias Martin (Spain, New England Conservatory) in a riveting, highly emotional reading.
*The Theme-and-Variations of the Andante from Schubert's String Quartet in D minor, D. 810 ("Death and the Maiden"), with ECU faculty violinist Hye-Jin Kim, guest faculty cellist Michael Kannen, violinist I-Jung Huang (Taiwan, New England Conservatory) and violist Marta Lambert (Greenville, Juilliard School). A faint musical similarity to the allegretto from Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 could be detected, and Kannen's cello was especially wonderful.
*The Adagio non troppo from Fauré's Piano Quartet in G minor, Op. 45, with ECU faculty pianist Keiko Sekino, guest faculty violist Hsin-Yun Huang, violinist Luther Warren (Minneapolis, New England Conservatory) and cellist Martin joined forces in a gorgeous ensemble. Sekino's non-stop piano lines were silky and fluid.
*The Adagio from Elgar's Piano Quintet in A minor, Op. 84, in which Gregorian on violin was joined by pianist Sahun Hong (Fort Worth, Tex., Peabody Conservatory), violinist Kate Arndt (Boston, New England Conservatory), violist Gili Radian-Sade (Israel, Tel Aviv University) and cellist Julia Yang (Tallahassee, Fla., New World Symphony fellow). This was simply beautiful – and beautifully played – from start to finish.
*The Larghetto from Dvořák's String Quintet in E flat, Op. 97 ("American," not to be confused with the more familiar "American" string quartet), in which guest faculty violist Ida Kavafian was joined by cellist Yang, violinist Hsu, violinist YuEun Kim (South Korea, University of Southern California), and violist Born Lau (Hong Kong, Curtis Institute). The two violas were especially noteworthy.
The concerts' livelier portions also were quite enjoyable, and perhaps the best was saved for the very last: the blazing Rondo alla Zingarese: Presto from Brahms' Piano Quartet in G minor, Op. 25. Pianist Kevin Ahfat (Canada, Juilliard School) and violinist Eva Aronian (Canada, New England Conservatory) joined with ECU's Kim on viola and ECU's Emanuel Gruber on cello to bring the workshop to a scintillating close.
But there were other equally enjoyable moments of intensity and boldness, such as the Allegro vivace from Mendelssohn's String Quintet in B-flat, Op. 87 (which easily could have been marked "furioso"), highlighted by the playing of first violin Adelya Nartadjieva (Uzbekistan, Yale), and the delightful Sonata for Piano Four-Hands in C, K. 251, by Mozart, handled expertly by ECU's Sekino and Churen Li (Singapore, Yale).
Guest faculty pianist Robert McDonald and guest faculty violinist Ani Kavafian provided splendid instrumental voices in four pieces. McDonald's strong piano was especially notable in the Allegro non troppo movement of Brahms' Piano Quintet, and Kavafian's violin sang in both the Allegro and Adagio movements of Brahms' String Quintet in G, Op. 111. Other musicians with North Carolina connections were pianist Vivian Cheng (Raleigh, Mozarteum, Salzburg), violinist Amelia Dietrich (Greenville, Colburn Conservatory), violinists Orin Laursen (Durham, New England Conservatory), and Florrie Marshall (Newport News, Va., ECU).
Coming from so many different places and backgrounds, it was remarkable that all 29 young musicians could blend together so well, while showing so much skill, musicianship, style, and poise. One would think that, based on the performances given at ECU in early January, these musicians have a bright future and will be heard from in years to come.