Early in his career at ECU, Ara Gregorian, who would go on to become a distinguished professor in the School of Music, struck a bit of a sour note during a visit with an arts patron.
It was not a musical note, of course. Gregorian, a Juilliard graduate who had moved to Greenville to teach two years earlier, was talking with Ira and Mary Ruth Hardy, sharing his vision for the Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival, a series that would bring acclaimed musicians to ECU to teach students and perform public concerts.
But Ira Hardy simply couldn't see it happening. He questioned where the young professor would find donors to underwrite such an endeavor.
“I said, 'I don't think this is going to work,'” Hardy recalled. “And my wife said, 'It is going to work.' I lost that battle, two to one.”
For hundreds of reasons, he has been glad that he did. In the years since, the Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival has presented more than 300 public concerts and 500 master classes across the state.
The yearlong series, which will launch its 20th season next week, has grown to include interactive concerts for younger students and workshops that have drawn musicians from around the world.
“The whole thing started with an idea or with a passion,” said Gregorian, the festival's founder and artistic director. “I wanted to be able to bring great musicians here not only to give concerts but to be part of the fabric of our community.
“I don't know what everyone thought at that time. I'm sure a lot of them thought, 'What's this young guy doing standing in front of us talking about these ideas, and how's he going to pull this off?'” he said, laughing. “But there were enough people initially that really liked the idea that were willing to take a chance on me and on the idea to get us started.”
What started with five concerts has grown to more than 50 for this season, including a seven-concert series in Raleigh, where Four Seasons is in its fifth year.
The season-opening concerts, scheduled on Thursday and Friday at A.J. Fletcher Recital Hall, includes a program featuring Gabriel Faure’s Piano Quartet No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 45 and Johannes Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 25. Performing alongside Gregorian on viola are guest artists Thomas Sauer, piano; Ida Kavafian, violin; and Zvi Plesser, cello.
Plesser, who was a guest artist during the festival's inaugural season, has served as music director for the Voice of Music Festival in the Upper Galilee, Israel’s oldest chamber music festival, since 2011. But in the last 20 years, he has made 15 appearances at Four Seasons.
“I love coming to Four Seasons. It has become a musical home for me,” Plesser said. “I got to know many of the audience members and supporters and love the combination of people that I meet both on and off stage. I also enjoy the teaching that is part of each residency. There are few festivals that I play in regularly, but I believe that Four Seasons is the one I have the best experience every time.”
Plesser is one of more than 30 musicians set to appear at this year's festival. Among them are Grammy Award nominees and other world-renowned artists who have been on stage of New York's Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center or performed at prestigious international venues including the Chalet Theatre in Paris and the Sydney Opera House. Guest artists include professors of music at schools such as Peabody Conservatory, Curtis Institute and The Juilliard School.
The festival, which included legendary pianist Leon Fleisher in 2017, is departing from tradition this year by hosting only returning guest artists. Though no musician besides Gregorian has participated in every year of the Four Seasons festival, some have taken part dozens of times.
“There are some people that have been here more than 20 times,” Gregorian said. “We usually try to introduce new people to the festival every year. But this year I felt it was important to have a lot of people that have been a part of what we do. It felt like also the right thing to do to bring so many of what I like to call the 'Four Seasons family' back to be part of this entire year of celebration.”
While the official 20th anniversary celebration is in October, the festival is celebrating throughout the season. A concert featuring works of Ludwig van Beethoven is scheduled in February in celebration of the 250th anniversary of the birth of the German composer and pianist.
“We'll be focusing on some Beethoven this year because of that anniversary,” Gregorian said. “Three concerts (November, February and May) have Beethoven in them to help celebrate Beethoven and the fact that he's one of the greatest composers that has ever lived.
“I've tried to bring back some really important pieces that have made their appearance here (at Four Seasons),” Gregorian said, adding that none of the concerts scheduled is a duplicate of a first-season concert.
“I think it's important to keep reinventing what we do,” he said. “I think that our real success is to try to have a consistency of excellence and to always be looking for ways to increase our scope and our impact on the community and ways we can do things better.”
Over the years, Four Seasons has grown to include such features as the Next Generation program, which gives young musicians a chance to perform in master classes for ECU faculty artists and guest artists. Launched in 2009 in Greenville, the program now tours the state and will expand to include Wilmington this year.
In addition, Four Seasons' Children's Residency, launched in 2008, will grow to include the Triangle this year with a visit from the mobile performance venue The Concert Truck.
Next spring, the festival plans to begin its newest initiative, Four Seasons Community. Planning is still underway for the effort, which will be an extension of the festival's long-standing tradition of having performances in public schools or hosting open rehearsals so that community members could watch and listen.
“The concept of this is that we want to bring great music, great musicians, all that Four Seasons is to those in our community that might not be able to come to our regularly scheduled events and concerts,” Gregorian said.
“I think part of the season is we're making a renewed effort to spread what we do within our community here,” he said. “That's incredibly exciting to me because that's how we started. It's just reaching out and having one-on-one conversations and spreading our passion about what we want to create here.”
ECU's Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival will begin its 20th season with concerts at 7 p.m. Thursday and 7:30 p.m. Friday at A.J. Fletcher Recital Hall. Tickets are $30 for the general public, $25 for ECU employees and $10 for students. Season tickets also are available. Visit fourseasons.ecu.edu/tickets.