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The raucous shouts of enthusiastic music students in A.J. Fletcher Recital Hall on May 1 lent the concert the atmosphere of a summer festival and contrasted with staid audiences for many chamber music offerings elsewhere. ECU's series, called the "Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival," was founded by faculty member Ara Gregorian, who is equally adept as a violinist and a violist. The series had a most unlikely genesis in two performances of Schoenberg's Pierrot lunaire that packed the hall in Greenville four years ago, revealing a hunger for chamber music in the region.
A crack Czech chamber ensemble might have equaled the ECU performance of Dvorák's rarely-played Viola Quintet in E-flat, Op. 97 ("American"), but I doubt any group could have played it with more engaging individuality. The music was composed in America during the same time as the "New World" Symphony and the "American" String Quartet. The Kneisel Quartet premiered the quintet and the quartet on the same concert. The opening melody, played by the first violin, is typical of many folk-like tunes used by the composer, but the more energetic and rhythmic second theme, heard over a drumming long-short rhythm, is believed to be based on an American Indian melody. The second viola opens the second movement with a striking drumbeat pattern while the slower trio, in the minor, features a gorgeous, soulful melody played by the second viola. The slow movement is a theme with five variations. The first part of the theme, heard at the very beginning, is characterized by a repeated descending motif. The more lyrical and chorale-like second part is thought to have been based on sketches Dvorák made for a new American national anthem set to the words beginning "My country, 'tis of thee." An exhilarating rondo brings the piece to a rollicking end and brought the thoroughly engrossed audience to its feet.
The players for the Dvorák were violinists Colin Jacobsen and Hagai Shaham, violists Ara Gregorian and Nicholas Cords, and cellist Alexis Pia Gerlach. This work must rank high on violists' lists of favorite compositions!
The concert opened with a vital performance of Mozart's Viola Quintet in C, K.515. The ensemble was tight and there was wonderfully matched phasing and precise intonation. There was nothing dry or academic about the artists' mastery of classical style. The violinists were Shaham and Gregorian, the violists were Cords and Jacobsen, and the cellist was again Gerlach.
Gregorian switched places with Shaham to lead a moving performance of the Adagio from Bruckner's Quintet in F. The glowing, plush, and heartfelt melody is set against its inversion. One could sense a distilled version of the composer's symphonic pattern, building up to a climax followed by an unusually quiet ending.
Very much after the pattern of a versatile mix of musicians first made by Charles Wadsworth at the Spoleto Festivals and later, for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Gregorian has created an imaginative and flexible program for Greenville. Many of the musicians on the series are members of Concertante, a fluid group that has appeared in Durham and, more recently, at ECU. I was impressed with Jacobsen, Cords, and Gerlach when they appeared with the Caramoor Virtuosi on Piccolo Spoleto's Spotlight Chamber Music series during the 2002 and 2001 festivals.