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A surfeit of riches. A smorgasbord of musical offerings. Alas, perhaps too much of a good thing.
For the second of two Next Generation concerts in the 2012-13 Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival, artistic director Ara Gregorian programmed a wide variety of musical selections that consumed nearly 2 ½ hours to complete. The music-making was top quality from start to finish — from Vivaldi to Shostakovich — but there was so much of it that some in the audience might have felt as if they had just participated in a dance marathon, or played a basketball game that went into three overtimes, or read “War and Peace” in one sitting.
One purpose behind the Next Generation concerts, begun only a few years ago, is to give some of the top string students in the East Carolina University School of Music a chance to play not just with faculty members, but also with a guest professional and to meet with an ECU School of Music graduate who has gone on to advanced study or begun playing at a higher level. And these are not average music students. The students did not merely double the parts played by the faculty members; they had their own occasions to stand out, to solo, and often the students made music on stage that could not be distinguished from their adult mentors.
The participants in the most recent concert already had run their own musical marathon, playing two concerts outside Greenville in a matter of a few days, and perhaps they had done so well that Gregorian wanted to show the hometown folks just how good the students are. So the program contained two works by Shostakovich, a Vivaldi concerto for two violins, a fun (and extended) arrangement of Geminiani’s “La Follia,” a work by Bartók, and parts of a Schumann piano quartet and Brahms piano quintet.
Wait. That’s not all.
The program ended with the full Mendelssohn Octet in E-flat, Op. 20.
Not a throwaway in the bunch, to be sure, and the players, from college student to guest violinist Hagai Shaham, excelled in just about every note played, and many notes were played.
The concert opened with an industrial strength (and industrial-sounding and occasionally discordant) Prelude and Scherzo for String Octet by Dmitri Shostakovich, not an easy piece to play and not an easy piece for the audience to warm up to. Faculty violinist Hye-Jin Kim had a dazzling solo turn, which contrasted nicely with a slower section featuring Shaham and Gregorian. Four students were part of the octet; this could be a strong addition to their musical resume.
Shaham and Gregorian shared the solo spotlight for Vivaldi’s well-known Concerto for Two Violins in A minor, RV 522, a real crowd-pleaser that offers both soloists a chance to shine. Shaham’s singing tone was delightful, especially in the second larghetto e spirituoso movement, and the two violinists fiddled up quite an energetic duet in the final allegro movement. The chamber orchestra, consisting of 18 students and faculty members, provided fine accompaniment, and this could have been the focal point of the program had the program been shorter.
For fun, the concert included Michi Wiancko’s arrangement of “La Follia: Variations for String Orchestra,” a tune by Geminiani that is almost as familiar as Pachelbel’s “Canon” or Albinoni’s “Adagio” among Baroque-era chestnuts. What sets this arrangement apart is the insertion of a mallet and wooden block in one variation to provide Latin-tinged rhythm accompaniment and a tambourine at another point, not to mention the flamenco-style foot-stamping in another variation near the end. In all, 25 players assembled for this piece, with some of the later variations sounding as if they came from a different ZIP code — but beautiful nevertheless.
Excerpts from Schumann’s Piano Quartet in E-flat, Op. 47; Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet in G-minor, Op. 57; and Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F-minor, Op. 34 provided an opportunity for students to join in a more intimate form of chamber music, and they did not disappoint. Student Kyle Walker was pianist in the sostenuto assai movement of the Schumann piece, and he turned in a fine reading of a demanding score. Student Marta Lambert was violist in the allegro non troppo movement of the Brahms quintet and played several exposed lines with skill and grace. Faculty member Keiko Sekino provided lovely piano playing in the Shostakovich and Brahms pieces, and Hye-Jin Kim’s fluid, effortless violin solos in the Shostakovich quintet were sublime, especially a long sustained tone played without vibrato in the Intermezzo movement.
The Mendelssohn Octet was almost an anti-climax. Part of an earlier Next Generation concert, this piece still is a work of compositional beauty, and Shaham and Gregorian on lead violins, along with faculty member Melissa Reardon and ECU graduate Andrew Minguez on viola, led the musicians, including three students, through an emotional and skillfully played reading. Shaham had quite a workout in the opening allegro moderato movement, and the rapid pulse of the third scherzo movement required spot-on timing by all players in what resembled at times a little horse race (that is, a race by tiny horses). Shaham and Reardon played furiously in the galloping final presto movement, which brought the long evening to a satisfying close.