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Four Seasons: Chamber music festival draws and develops accomplished musicians

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Ara Gregorian

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By Kim Grizzard

Friday, September 21, 2018

The 19th season of the Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival will feature internationally acclaimed artists that include a Grammy Award-winning soloist, musicians who have performed at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center and faculty from the country's most prestigious music schools.

And that is just for the first concert.

The season, which begins Thursday and continues through next spring, will feature more than two dozen performances by some three dozen renowned musicians.

For the Season Opening Extravaganza, Grammy Award-winning violist Kim Kashkashian will join Ida Kavafian, Hye-Jin Kim, Marcy Rosen, Peter Wiley and festival Artistic Director Ara Gregorian to perform Edward Elgar’s Serenade for Strings (arranged for string sextet), Johannes Brahms’ String Sextet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 36 and Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir de Florence,” Op. 70.

“Within the classical music world, these are names that for years have been at the top of the game,” said Gregorian, distinguished professor of violin at East Carolina University and founder of Four Seasons.“We have living legends.”

Kashkashian won the 2013 Grammy Award for best classical instrumental solo and has received a George Peabody Medal for outstanding contributions to music in America. Wiley was principal cellist of the Cincinnati Symphony at the age of 20; Kavafian is an artist of the Chamber Music Society of the Lincoln Center. Rosen is a former member of the world-renowned Mendelsohn String Quartet, and Kim won first prize at the Yehudi Menuhin and Concert Artist Guild international competitions.

“To see those people all on the stage together at the same time, it just doesn't happen,” Gregorian said. “We have a really unique opportunity here to be able to not only witness these people's artistry individually but then to see, as is the magic with chamber music, how it gets melded together to come up with a unified voice.”

Launched in 2001, Four Seasons initially consisted of five performances by visiting artists. Over the better part of two decades, the festival has grown to include concerts across the state. It also has expanded its educational outreach from master classes for ECU students to interactive concerts for younger students and workshops that have drawn musicians from around the world.

Beyond Greenville, this year's series will include performances and initiatives in Raleigh, Durham, Greensboro, Charlotte and Southern Shores. In 2015, the festival added a subscription series in the Triangle area, which now includes half a dozen concerts.

“I think Four Seasons has been an ambassador in that way, which we're really proud of,” Gregorian said. “It's neat to see Four Seasons just start to become more a part of the fabric of North Carolina, not just eastern North Carolina … it's great to be able to have the same kind of impacts we have here across the state.”

Exclusive to the Greenville audience will be Four Seasons Features in March. The event will include an open conversation with Israeli virtuoso violinist Miriam Fried before a performance of sonatas and partitas and the Bach Concerto for Two Violins.

“Four Seasons Features is to really feature a specific musician or projects that specific musicians do and hopefully give the audience and the community some insight into not just them standing on stage playing and hearing their artistry but actually who they are as a person,” Gregorian said.

Additional Four Seasons concerts are scheduled in November, February and March at A.J. Fletcher Recital Hall on campus. In October and February, Chamber Music Dressed Down will bring additional concerts to less-traditional settings, including The Cupola Building in downtown Greenville.

As the name suggests, Chamber Music Dressed Down offers a more casual concert-going environment, designed especially for people who might like to attend a chamber music event but prefer a less formal setting.

“I think people assume sometimes that it (chamber music) is a little staid or boring,” Gregorian said. “The bottom line is it's just not. It's terribly exciting the way they're able to take this music and bring it in a vital and alive way to the audience. The electricity that's there, you can only get that in a live concert.”

Perhaps nowhere is the energy more evident than it is in Four Seasons' Next Generation programs. Next Generation gives young musicians a chance to perform in master classes for ECU faculty artists and guest artists. They then rehearse and perform concerts with those artists and selected ECU students and Next Generation alumni. Launched in 2009 in Greenville, the free program began touring the state five years ago.

What began as an effort to encourage the next generation of artists by introducing them to accomplished musicians has inspired many of the younger students to pursue music at ECU.

“We have many students from throughout the state that are here now, that have participated in our Next Generation program,” Gregorian said. “That's an amazing thing to see all those students come.

“Every incoming student that we had in the strings area this year has participated in our Next Generation project.”

One of them is Anna Sykes of Greensboro, a freshman who is majoring in violin performance. Sykes began participating in Next Generation concerts in Greensboro during her sophomore year of high school.

“Playing with them, with that high level of musicians, I had never done that before,” she said. “It really is what made me want to study violin.”

Yulia Price, also a violin performance major at ECU, has a similar story. She joined a Next Generation initiative in Charlotte when she was a freshman in high school in Shelby.

“It was actually pretty eye-opening,” she said. “If it weren't for Next Generation, I probably wouldn't have come to ECU. It definitely wasn't on my radar initially.”

Both Sykes and Price continue to perform with Next Generation, helping to introduce younger music students to the kind of experience they were able to have prior to enrolling at ECU.

For all its educational advantages, Price believes Four Seasons offers even more to the Greenville community.

“It's really put the arts out there. I think more and more people now are coming to concerts and being willing to listen to classical music,” she said. “It's really nice to see arts start to thrive.”

Gregorian agrees.

“The idea with all of this is to make Greenville and eastern North Carolina a hub for chamber music,” he said. “I think we've done that and we continue to develop. There's actually an international reputation for that now.”

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