The popular Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival at East Carolina University finds interesting ways to keep from going stale, tweaking its programming here and there, and the second "Next Generation" concert in late January was no exception. In the past, these concerts have brought top ECU string students to the stage with their ECU professors, a visiting guest musician and an alumnus or two for an evening of trios, quartets and quintets, and a composition or two for small chamber orchestra. At the first Next Generation concert this season, festival artistic director Ara Gregorian expanded the number of performers by inviting two high school students who had participated in a summer chamber music workshop to join in; at the second concert in late January, a large number of summer workshop participants and other younger students came to the Fletcher Recital Hall to make music.
Most of the students are in high school, although some of the students appeared to be middle-school age, but they certainly showed that they are serious about their music. And this was not a gaggle of little kids lined up to saw away on "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" on their reduced-size violins. These were young musicians playing the opening Allegro ma non troppo movement from Dvořák's "American" String Quartet in F, Op. 96, for example, and several other works from the chamber music repertoire.
The program was long (14 main movements over about three hours), and the variety of music was impressive, ranging from Beethoven and Schubert to two heavy pieces by Shostakovich. At least one piece was quite the eye- (and ear-) opener: the Serenade, Op. 119, by Georg Goltermann, a 19th century German cellist and composer. Fourteen cellists, including guest performer Colin Carr and ECU faculty member Emanuel Gruber, were on stage to play the piece, which was both beautiful and beautifully performed.
Another piece was unexpected and most lovely: Romance for Bassoon and Strings, Op. 62, by Edward Elgar, with Christopher Ulffers, director of the ECU School of Music, as soloist. He performed with a string quintet of two violins and a viola, cello and bass. Ulffers negotiated the challenging intervals well, and the blend with the string quintet was excellent.
Other pieces on the program showed the incredibly wide range of chamber music variety. Keiko Sekino of the ECU keyboard faculty was featured pianist in the opening Allegro vivace movement of Schubert's Piano Quintet in A, D. 667, joined by ECU faculty violinist Hye-Jin Kim, ECU alumna Marta Lambert on viola, guest cellist Carr and faculty bassist Leonid Finkelshteyn. A lovely reading by all.
Gregorian, Kim, alumni Leonardo Perez on violin and Jesse Smith on cello, joined by ECU student Florrie Marshall on viola and Carr on cello, gave a sparkling reading to the third Allegretto moderato movement of Tchaikovsky's String Sextet in D minor, Op. 70 ("Souvenir de Florence"). Gregorian, Kim and Carr were joined by alumni and students to present a fine reading of the opening Allegro moderato ma con fuoco movement of Mendelssohn's Octet in E-flat, Op. 20 – a true gem in the chamber repertoire that was well played.
The entire group did well on the fourth "Frolicsome Finale" movement in Britten's Simple Symphony, Op. 4, and the six "Romanian Folk Dances" by Bartók. The pieces played by full orchestra could have become much like an exercise in herding cats, given the ages and experience levels among the visiting students, but such was not at all the case. Timing was well maintained, especially in the dances, and the rich, full sound of the strings was most enjoyable.
The concert opened and closed with Dmitri Shostakovich: first, the Prelude and Scherzo movements in Two Pieces for String Octet, Op. 11, and at the end, his String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110, as played by a large string orchestra. The pieces for octet, which combined faculty, alumni and students, were both dark and bright, and the contrast between the moods was pronounced. The quartet, written as a statement against fascism and war, was decidedly somber for almost the entire piece. This is a bleak, mainly minor-key, musical landscape, with the strings often providing a drone behind a solo violin line, in this case played well by Gregorian. Kim and cellist Gruber engaged in a ghostly duet at another point, and the first violins played an eerie three-quarter time passage over violas and cellos in another section. This concert did not end on a splashy high note; instead, it ended with a feeling of introspective and emotional intensity.