Many area concert-goers see violist-violinist Ara Gregorian four or five times a year as a member of a chamber ensemble performing in the Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival, of which he is artistic director. He might have an extended solo passage to perform here and there, but for the most part, he is one of three, four or five generally co-equal performers who explore the more intimate nuances of trios, quartets or quintets.
Before a large and appreciative audience at Wright Auditorium on the campus of East Carolina University in early February, however, Gregorian was a soloist, standing in the musical spotlight that shines on and from one of the most demanding and difficult — not to mention popular — of all violin concerti in the repertoire, Beethoven’s Concerto in D, Op. 61. He brought his considerable skill and musicianship to bear on each note and phrase, and he received excellent support from the East Carolina University Symphony Orchestra, directed by Jorge Richter.
The concerto is one of those compositions that create anticipation from the start, with its long orchestral introduction, yet at times one wonders what all the fuss is about, as the soloist seems to add just a few embellishments to the melodies. But then one notices, in the initial “Allegro ma non troppo” movement, for example, how much fluttery tremolo fingering is required — several long passages’ worth — and the listener realizes that quite a bit of high-energy playing is under way.
This is a gigantic movement, and by the time the soloist finally comes to the long cadenza, he or she has been exerting considerable effort to keep up with the demands of the score. Gregorian poured himself into the piece, and his playing of the Fritz Kreisler-penned cadenza, with its many double stops (and perhaps triple and quadruple stops, for all we know), was splendid.
Playing a late 17th century Ruggeri violin, Gregorian brought his energetic performing style so often exhibited in the Four Seasons concerts to the Wright stage. No stone pillar of a musician, he twisted and turned, occasionally frowned, even tapped his feet in rhythm with the music. (Word to stage managers: find a small rug for him to stand on in future concerts.) But this was no fiddle hoedown.
His solo playing in the lovely second “Larghetto” movement was complimented well by the soft cushion of support provided by the string players, including especially nice plucked strings behind the soloist, and all forces came together for a stirring final “Rondo” movement.
Beethoven’s scoring calls for the soloist to play the movement’s familiar bouncy theme several times, often two octaves apart, and Gregorian provided a nice contrast by playing the higher repeated passage lighter and quieter than the preceding passage. The cadenza in the final movement is surprisingly short, but Gregorian did not brush it aside.
A concerto is a stern test for less experienced musicians, and the interplay between Gregorian and the young symphony musicians did not seem to falter throughout the entire piece. The orchestra’s ensemble sound was quite good, and the balance was remarkably clean.
Richter led the orchestra through three shorter pieces to open the program, starting with Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Russian Easter Festival Overture,” Op. 36. This is considered an orchestral showpiece, although it also is a lot of musical sound in search of a theme. The winds began the piece nicely, and concertmistress Caroline Cox had some nice solo passages, as did trombonist Evan Roberson. The tempo was brisk, the attacks were crisp, and the players exhibited a full, rich sound in all sections.
Two of Dvorak’s more familiar Slavonic dances also were played well. The Dance No. 4 in F, Op. 46, received a slower and heavier reading than necessary, which contributed to the piece resembling more of a slow waltz than a rustic country dance. The more famous Dance No. 8 in G-minor fared much better. Richter maintained a quicker tempo, and the players provided an appropriately bright sound throughout.
A word about the ECU Symphony Orchestra: one must sympathize with the plight of a university musical ensemble director, who generally tries to mold a performing unit out of talented musicians whose roster changes every year. ECU Symphony concerts in the recent past have been marked by noticeable strengths and weaknesses, and some occasionally have been less-than-satisfying. But this current group of players seems extraordinarily skilled as an ensemble, and they are producing an excellent sound. Richter, too, seems more graceful, less overly emphatic, leading this group.