"Intense" is the single word that could sum up the first recital of the 2005-06 Peace College/NC Symphony Chamber Music Series (Oct. 17th). The term was equally applicable to the musical selections and the performers.
The series (known for its first five seasons as the Jewel Edgerton Williamson series but this season sponsored by Evelyn Hunter-Longdon of Greensboro) features members of the NC Symphony and the faculty of Peace College, with occasional additions from guest artists with the Symphony, in performance at the school's Kenan Recital Hall. Monday night's recital was a formidable grouping of NC Symphony musicians — Bonnie Thron, principal cellist, David Marschall, assistant principal violist, and Dovid Friedlander, associate concertmaster, in his first season with the orchestra. Pianist Antonio Pompa-Baldi, having just completed three concerts on the weekend with the Symphony as soloist in Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2, was a gratifying bonus. Also participating was Peace music faculty member Milton Laufer, who jokingly introduced himself as "amateur page turner," a function he performed all evening with great professionalism.
The recital began with Johan Halvorsen's 1894 Passacaglia for violin and viola, based on a theme from Handel's Suite No. 7 for harpsichord. This showpiece is quite demanding, with many double stops, close harmonies and treacherous rhythmic figures. Friedlander and Marschall impressed mightily with their bold tone and fearless tempos. Some intonation problems aside, the gusto and concentration with which the pair played made the piece an exciting presage of things to come.
Thron and Pompa-Baldi played the Grieg Cello Sonata in A Minor, Op. 36, and it was a visceral, whirlwind ride. This work is a storm-ridden, passion-laded series of outbursts, which the performers infused with almost frightening soul-searching depths.
Thron, in particular, seemed possessed, her eyes alternately scanning the heavens for some release from pain and squeezing tightly shut to contain inner demons. Lest this sound overdone, the physical manifestations of her interpretation fully matched Grieg's almost unrelenting turbulence. She wasn't afraid to allow her tone to have a rough edge when appropriate, but she also commanded a fine, rounded legato line when needed.
For his part, Pompa-Baldi exhibited a much different demeanor than he had in the Beethoven Concerto No. 2 performances, where his quiet reverence and controlled precision matched the constraint of that early transitional work. Here, Pompa-Baldi took authoritative command, matching Thron's fervor while supplying his trademark clarity and rhythmic vigor. He was especially mindful of coordination with Thron, making the sudden changes of tempo and mood work without a hitch.
Together, these two produced one of the most thrilling, emotionally draining experiences this listener has had in a chamber concert in many a year.
After a much-needed intermission to regain a balance of the senses, all four musicians joined together for Schumann's Piano Quartet. Despite the potential distraction of a lighting system snafu (stage lights could not be brought back up to full, so lights were left on in the audience to provide ambient illumination), the players turned in another powerful performance, confidently tackling the extremes of tempo with amazing speed and precision, producing rich, full sonorities.
While Schumann's Piano Quartet is not as satisfying to some as the Quintet, it has much to offer, especially the extremely beautiful third movement with its serene melody. The other three movements have an intense presence that challenges the players to keep from becoming monotonous, well met here with these four fine musicians. The only complaint one might lodge is that the program's selections were too much in the same mold. A more widely contrasting work might have made a better second half choice.
This series continues to be a somewhat hidden treasure. These free performances with top-level musicians should not have a seat empty in this relatively small hall. Kudos to the NC Symphony, Peace College and the past and present private sponsors for such gratifying offerings.
Note: There are three additional recitals left on the series (Nov. 21, Feb. 20, and Mar. 27). Check the CVNC calendar for details as they are posted.