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A large and savvy crowd enthusiastically greeted the first performance of the Chrysalis Chamber Music Institute in Watson Hall on the campus of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. The diverse program was performed by members of the prestigious UNCSA faculty combined with the members of the Giannini String Quartet (in residence at UNCSA and composed of upper level students) and a trio of advanced brass and woodwind students. The choice of the name “Chrysalis” suggests the final incubation before the emergence of the mature artist. (A chrysalis is the penultimate stage of the metamorphosis of most lepitoptera – moths and butterflies – and takes its name from the Greek word for “gold,” describing the metallic sheen of some common chrysalides.)
The opening work on the program was the Piano Quartet in A minor, Op. 67, composed in 1931 by Spanish composer Joaquín Turina (1882-1949) and played by UNCSA faculty members Eric Larsen, piano, Kevin Lawrence, violin, Sheila Browne, viola, and Brooks Whitehouse, cello. This wistful romantic piece in three movements often lets the strings play in unison while the piano pursues its own way. A Moor-esque theme entering on the cello confirms the Spanish roots of the composer, as does the lively second movement. The last movement starts with a solo violin – not unlike the start of Édouard Lalo's Symphonie espagnole. (Oh, how those French composers loved to dabble in Spanish music!) Two alternating sections make up most of the charming third movement and include the typically Iberian alternation of 3/4 and 6/8 meters (recall Bernstein's "Ev'rything's fine in A-Me-Ri-Ca").
The second work on the program, the iconoclastic Octet, composed by Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) in 1923, was the composer's first work in a completely new style of composition and, perhaps, a belated reaction to the emotional horrors of World War I. The style was soon to be known as “neo-classical,” forsaking the romanticism and expressionism of the music of the previous hundred years for a drier yet modernistic vision of the style of Haydn and Mozart. Even the instrumentation is unusual, but certainly not shocking – pairs of trumpets, trombones, and bassoons complemented by one clarinet and one flute – sparse, perhaps, but sufficient to cover a broad range of dynamics, register, and articulation. I found this performance to be very appealing, perhaps because I was unfamiliar with the Octet and was continually discovering new ideas or ideas hidden in new disguises – especially in the second movement, a Theme with Variations. I am particularly fond of the double octave with which Stravinsky presents the theme in the low clarinet (Oskar Espina-Ruiz) and high flute (Tadeu Coelho). A fugal Finale starts with the instruments in pairs and becomes increasingly simplified until after some measures of camouflaged Latin rhythm; the closing is abrupt, but delightfully understated.
The entire second half of the program was devoted to one of the summits of musical composition, the gorgeous Octet for Strings in E-flat, Op. 20, by Felix Mendelssohn. That the composer was only 16 years old at the time he composed this masterpiece only adds to the listeners' wonder and awe. The faculty members, Ida Bieler and Janet Orenstein, violins, Sheila Browne, viola and Brooks Whitehouse, cello, were joined by the students Lucia Kobza and Nicole Wendl, violins, Peter Ayuso, viola, and John Elias Kaynor, cello, in this wonderful work. Mendelssohn used every cross-pairing of players he could imagine in the first movement. The Scherzo reminds us of that other youthful masterpiece of the composer, the Overture to Midsummer Night's Dream. The theme of the Presto Finale resembles that of the first movement, but inverted and squared up, so to speak. In one of its iterations, it resembles mightily the strain of Handel's “Hallelujah Chorus” ... "And He shall reign forever and ever...." The audience gave this breathtaking performance a well-deserved standing ovation. Indeed, the chrysalis has fulfilled its promise – one waits for the next!