The Albert Carlton-Cashiers Library was the host venue for a repeat performance by Will Ransom and members of the Attacca Quartet of the Highlands-Cashiers Chamber Music Festival’s 29th season opener. The program was a bicentennial celebration of Chopin and Schumann, a theme that will return in their programming on August 8-9. Formed at the Juilliard School in 2003, the Attacca Quartet has since garnered critical acclaim as winner of the Alice Coleman Grand Prize at the 60th annual Coleman Chamber Ensemble Competition in 2006. They made their Carnegie Hall debut in 2007 as part of the Artists International Winners Series and have been festival participants around the world. The members are violinists Amy Schroeder and Keiko Tokunaga, and cellist Andrew Yee; guest violist Molly Carr replaced Luke Fleming for this performance. Pianist Ransom, the Mary L. Emerson Professor of Piano and Director of Piano Studies at Emory University, is active as both soloist and chamber player and marks his 10th anniversary as the Festival’s Artistic Director. This concert was underwritten, in part, by Dr. Richard and Ann Strub and James and Caroline Theus.
Once sought after as a retreat from the summer’s heat, the beautiful mountain communities of western North Carolina now offer in addition a staggering array of chamber music festivals, each bearing a unique personality. Ransom’s aim seems to be that of making the music accessible, not only with copious program notes and personal reflections on the music from the stage, but with performances in a variety of venues (libraries, farmhouses, coffeehouses), often in the form of dinner packages. Classes and other lectures complement the season’s offerings. One is encouraged to hearken to a former and slower age, when rest, fine food and music heard in a pristine environment were essential to good health and happiness.
Ransom performed as the concert’s first half a Chopin “sampler” in two sets. Set one began with the Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23. Performed with expansive lyricism and copious rubato at the inception, Ransom poured on the fire as the piece gathered momentum to its exciting conclusion. This was followed by the Nocturne in B, Op. 32, No. 1, which moved along rather smartly, its filigree of embellishments and experimental musings at the work’s end a delight to hear. The Scherzo No. 1 in B minor, Op. 20, somewhat of a hybrid between a ballade and an etude, projected an atmosphere of existential angst coupled with quiet repose. The middle section based on a Polish carol was played with exquisite voicing and the most subtle dynamic palette.
Ransom’s second set consisted of the poignant Mazurka in A minor, Op. 17, No 4, performed in touching remembrance of a friend of Ransom’s who once read his own writings in conjunction with Ransom’s performance of the piece. The scintillating “Minute” Waltz, Op. 64, No. 1 was the quick follow-up, to be concluded by the grandly nationalistic Polonaise in A-flat, Op. 53 (“Heroic”). Ransom dedicated this excellently styled performance to the Board and Festival Goers who share his love of music.
Following a lovely intermission on the patio with refreshments (food is never far away from any HCCMF event), was the Schumann Quintet in E-flat, Op. 44. While this is a work of superlatives — Schumann composed it in only five days, and Mendelssohn famously sight-read the piano part after Clara Schumann, scheduled to play it, became ill — I think this is simply chamber music at its most fun. In the hands of Ransom and the youthful quartet, their inspired performance was musically satisfying in every way. From its eight opening chords, the first movement Allegro brillante simply brimmed with the intelligent interplay of musical thoughts penned by a master. The funereal second movement, In Modo d’una Marcia, showcased deep expressiveness and flawless ensemble playing, especially in the tricky coordination of its dotted rhythm figures. The delightful third movement Scherzo: Molto vivace, a riotous in-your-face “scalathon,” was played with a gleeful sense of abandon. The final Allegro ma non troppo was a musical marvel, beginning with rather simple musical materials which served as a foil for the fugal episodes occurring toward the work’s end.