There was another wonderful chamber music concert in Hayes Barton United Methodist Church, the third in a series of four being presented there in 2015-16 – along with a fifth, last September, given at St. Mary's School – as the Greenville-based (ECU-based, really) Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival firmly extended its reach to the capital. These are all run-outs to Raleigh, a city not used to being on the receiving end of such outreach (since much more frequently it's concerts first produced here that are sent out to "the provinces"), but in truth this approach gives Triangle music lovers the benefits of Four Seasons' innovative and superior programming plus its stimulating assortment of visiting and Greenville-based artists in concerts already polished to virtual perfection as a result of intensive rehearsal and several other performances before they get here. What's not to like about this? And then, to hear the music in such a wonderful venue as HBUMC – well, it would be churlish to ask for more.
There's lots of chamber music in Raleigh: the long-running presenter Chamber Music Raleigh (formerly the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild) gives concerts at HBUMC and St. Michael's Episcopal Church and a second series the NC Museum of Art; the NC Symphony, with a chamber series at Peace University and, more infrequently, evenings in various local restaurants, bars, and clubs; St. Mary's, with its time-honored Smedes Parlor Series (in a truly historic room now named the Smedes-Emory Parlor); NCSU, which hosts its own faculty and visitors, too, in an impressively rich concert-filled season in multiple facilities; Meredith College, with its several excellent concert rooms wherein its faculty, students, and visitors – plus guest artists and ensembles from the community – are often heard; and many other churches, including Edenton Street UMC, the Church of the Nativity, etc. So much music! And not one single bit of it in city-owned facilities – no, not one concert anymore in the city's own much-touted performing arts center, where the high cost of doing business and the near-impossibility of scheduling around and against big presenters have gradually led most other, smaller community non-profits to look elsewhere for suitable and affordable places to perform. Something needs to be done to address this long-standing problem, a challenge first raised in this journal some 15 years ago* – a challenge that won't be remedied by building a new venue to be run by the city but which a private, non-profit performing arts consortium running a new auditorium might have a snowball's chance of fixing.
But I digress.
The object of the immediate exercise is Four Seasons' magnificent, virtually flawless concert of music by Mozart, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn. Never mind that there was nothing by anyone born less than 200 years ago. What was heard were three of the best of the best from these three "best" composers. The opening work, Mozart's "Hunt" Quartet (No. 17, by the reckoning of most authorities, in B-flat, K.458), was so beautifully played by the four instrumentalists – ECU-based violinists Hye-Jin Kim and Ara Gregorian, and two Peabody-based artists, violist Maria Lambros and cellist Michael Kannen – that there were moments when one felt this music was freshly minted, being presented to a new audience for the very first time. It's a substantial quartet, one rich in artistic and emotional qualities and reflecting the profound depth the composer so often achieved in his maturity (the word being something of a cruel joke as he was to die so very young). The playing was truly exceptional, with levels of precise attacks, of intensity and incisiveness, of balance and blend, of phrasing, and of dynamic control that were often breath-taking, resulting in a reading of considerable profundity that made one think, as it unfolded, that this opening piece might well be the evening's highlight. But there was more to come.
Of Beethoven's Op. 18 quartets, No. 4, in C minor, is one of that master's more profound "early" period compositions, one that looks forward and backward (if that's possible – and yes, it is) at the same time. It points ahead to the richly Romantic music we know came later, and it reflects Haydn's strong influence – and we must recall that this set of six quartets was published in 1801, with Papa H. (1732-1809) still very much alive and kicking at the time.
Critics quibble, although there was little to dispute here, technically, artistically, interpretively. That said, the opening movement, marked "Allegro," was that with a vengeance, taken at a speed that made experienced listeners look up in surprise and wonder; that tempo indication continues "…ma non troppo" ("but not too much"), a portion of the composer's direction that would appear to have been overlooked, at least at the outset.
The rest of the work reflected its expected performance course, with, in retrospect, overall impressive results, eliciting enthusiastic applause from the small but clearly appreciative audience.
Following what seemed to be a longish intermission, the concert concluded with Mendelssohn's last quartet (No. 6, in F minor, Op. 80), written in 1847 in the wake of sister Fanny's untimely death. It's worth noting that Felix would himself be dead that same year at the age of 38, just ten days shy of six months after Fanny.
This is one of this master's more profound and emotionally stirring works, one that plumbs emotional depths not customarily sensed in the composer's generally lighter, airier pieces. Its darkness, its moods, its spirituality (to use a word perhaps too rarely summoned in coverage of chamber music) were all conveyed with wondrous skill by these fine artists. The performance in turn elicited a huge ovation, with wall-to-wall standees, a tribute to the outstanding concert we'd enjoyed and to the magnificence of its interpreters, individually and, of course, collectively.
Concerts at Hayes Barton Methodist continue with the Raleigh Camerata (part of the H.I.P. Festival) on February 13; music by Bach, played by cellist Emanuel Gruber, on February 21; and a recital by the church's new organist, Stephen Aber, on March 6. Four Seasons' Raleigh series concludes at Hayes Barton on April 9, with music by Robert Schumann and Dvořák. For details of all these programs, see our calendar.
*Longtime venue director Roger Krupa has retired, but the problems persist.