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Despite a crushing heat-wave unusual for this cool mountain oasis, a sizable audience gathered for the mid-point concert of the Highlands-Cashiers Chamber Music Festival. Veteran performers violinist William Preucil, Festival Director and pianist Will Ransom, and harpist Valerie von Pechy Whitcup were joined by rising stars Charae Krueger (cello), Yinzi Kong (viola), and Lea Kibler (flute) in a truly distinctive slate of performances of works by Beethoven, Debussy, and Dvořák. It was wonderfully refreshing to simply sit quietly and hear such an emotive and powerful exchange of artistic ideas, all done without words. The concert was underwritten in part by Peter and Valerie Whitcup.
The program opened with Beethoven’s Sonata in F, Op. 24 of 1800, nicknamed “Spring” by subsequent listeners. This monumental and endearing four-movement work grew out of a period of exceptional creativity by the young composer; its elegant and light-hearted music contrasts greatly with Beethoven’s own anguish-filled crisis of encroaching deafness. Here, the composer chooses not to rail at the world, but to respond with a work of incomparable beauty and serenity. Preucil and Ransom’s rendition was exquisite, executed with grace and without pretension. I was captivated especially by Preucil’s handling of the seemingly “inconsequential” musical details, how he rendered them meaningful, and how very funny Beethoven could be with musical exchanges that sound like comic repartees. The brief third movement Scherzo, another ingenious stroke of off-beat levity, was a beautiful foil for the larger, more serious outer movements.
Next was Debussy’s three-movement Sonata No. 2 for Flute, Harp and Viola of 1915, one of the last three chamber works and one whose trajectory was delightfully impossible to follow. The composer himself was apparently aware of the mercurial nature of the work, stating that its mood was “terribly melancholy — should one laugh or cry? Perhaps both at the same time.” Even though the composer employed some traditional formal elements, the sound world is vintage Debussy — floating melodic fragments, chords for the sake of color over form, and above all, an exploration of sonic combinations. Debussy’s musical canvas is spacious, with ample room for musical experimentation on many levels. The second movement Interlude in particular featured some of the most intriguing writing for the harp — roulades, counterpoint, ostinati — whose unique colors blended mysteriously into the whole. The Finale fairly bristled with its sharply declaimed, march-macabre-like music.
The program’s concluding work was the Piano Trio No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 90 (“Dumky”) by Antonin Dvořák. A work of six movements composed in 1891, this enormously appealing piece works more like a medley of folk songs, and was performed as such with almost no breaks between movements. Each movement consists of a “dumka,” a song consisting of slow, plaintive sections alternating with those of lighting speed and unbridled joy. Cellist Charae Krueger was the “newest kid on the block” and had no problem whatsoever matching the virtuosity and musicality of Preucil and Ransom. The audience was clearly in the mood for such a musical romp, and gave the ensemble a rousing standing ovation.