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The 35th season of the Highlands-Cashiers Chamber Music Festival under the direction of Will Ransom is now in full swing in the beautiful high country of our western North Carolina mountains. Though the Festival's main performances alternate between the Albert Carlton-Cashiers Library in Cashiers and the Highland Performing Arts Center in Highlands, festival music can be heard in many other more intimate venues. For this concert in the Highlands Performing Arts Center, master clarinetist Richard Stoltzman was joined by the Cecilia String Quartet (Sara Nematallah, violin; Caitlin Boyle, viola; Rachel Desoer, cello) and Ransom as pianist in a delightful program of Mendelssohn, Brahms, and Mozart. Scott St. John stood in for first violinist Min-Jeong Koh who was away on tour. The concert underwriters were Tim and Gail Hughes and Chuck and Madge Ringbakk. The performance will repeat tonight in the Cashiers Libary location.
The concert opener was Felix Mendelssohn's String Quartet No. 4 in E minor, Op 44, No. 2. This set of 3 quartets was composed in 1837-38 when Mendelssohn was fully engaged in his busy professional life as conductor, advisor to cultural and educational entities, and performing pianist, organist, and chamber musician. The music reflects his sure grasp of the string quartet genre in scope and content, and he must have felt so too, as the quartets bear a lofty dedication to the Crown Prince of Sweden.
The opening Allegro assai appassionato was led adroitly by St. John whose prominent first violin part was accompanied cohesively by the three ladies. There were excellent conversation exchanges in the development section and plenty of fire and warmth in the return of the main material. The swirling unison passages toward the end furnished a thrilling close to this movement, and was a device heard again in the final Presto agitato movement. The Scherzo featured the Mendelssohnian scurrying music made famous in his Midsummer Night's Dream Incidental Music, Op. 61 and the quartet played this with unflagging energy. The third movement Andante grazioso was a song-without-words – also a signature form of the composer's expression – and this was rendered with beautiful, lyrical phrasing and a tempo that worked so that the movement didn't founder on sentimentality. The final Presto agitato bristled with a simmering intensity that was tempered by a few dance-like, lighter moments, and built finally to its closing declamatory statements.
Following this and before intermission was Johannes Brahms' Clarinet Trio in A minor, Op. 114, which the composer completed in 1891 for clarinet virtuoso Richard Mühlfeld. Written for the lower-pitched A clarinet, the general sound of this work is naturally darker, thus lending its music an enhanced pathos. As if to counterbalance the dark sonic properties of his clarinet, Stoltzman played at a high energy level throughout the first movement Allegro that frequently resulted in a strident tone, particularly in the high register. The cellist and pianist ramped up to match. Added to the very live acoustic properties of the hall and the very bright timbre of the piano, the sound was huge for just three players. The second movement Adagio featured a more relaxed exchange among the players and highlighted the strengths of each in its conversational give-and-take. The third movement Andante grazioso in a more accessible and folksy tone was a foil to the final, heavy Allegro, which was anchored securely by Ransom's keyboard.
The crown jewel of the concert was its concluding piece, Mozart's Clarinet Quintet in A, K. 581. Stoltzman is clearly a master of this work, generating the warmest and richest sounds of the concert within it. One thing that surely helped was that he sat sideways to the audience, thus sending his part into the mix of the ensemble. The soulful second movement Larghetto was an exquisite display of Mozart's lyrical, achingly beautiful writing that draws tears when performed as beautifully as this was. The final variation set began with a tempo that was too deliberate, I thought, but was shifted faster in the variation where Stoltzman blazed up and down his instrument in a storm of difficult figurations. The Quartet was a good-humored partner in this, with the first violinist interjecting a few extra notes to answer the clarinet, causing all players to guffaw out loud. Mozart, I'm sure, would have enjoyed the joke, and the audience roared its approval as well.
For repeat performance information, see our calendar.