Nestled in the mountains of far-western Virginia, Garth Newel Music Center sits on the grounds of a former horse farm estate. In addition to a stately manor house, Herter Hall, a converted riding stable, serves as an intimate recital space. (Don't let the architecture fool you – the acoustics are wonderful.) Garth Newel has been presenting chamber music concerts for nearly a half-century.

Garth Newel Piano Quartet © Lee Brauer
Garth Newel Piano Quartet
© Lee Brauer

Tonight's event was titled "A French Feast"... and it was all of that. In addition to presenting a concert of French music, the courses of a French meal were served in between the musical numbers. The performers were the Garth Newel Piano Quartet, made up of artists-in-residence Teresa Ling (violin), Evelyn Grau (viola), Isaac Melamed (cello) and Jeannette Fang (pianist). The Quartet chose an eclectic selection of pieces that was wholly appropriate to the delectable culinary offerings accompanying the music.

First up was Hasards by Florent Schmitt. Composed in 1939, this fascinating suite was described by the composer as a petit concert. Roughly translated, its title means "Chances," and the chances Schmitt takes give us music that's rhythmic and colorful, pushing harmonic boundaries while retaining a sense of irony and fun throughout. It isn't hard to imagine younger French composers like Francis Poulenc and Jean Françaix finding inspiration in this music.

As the perfect musical appetizer, Hasards lasts fewer than 15 minutes in all. The opening Exorde – D'une allure rapide is a fast movement with a light, syncopated rhythm, which is followed by a lively second movement in 6/8 time with an indeterminate key signature. The lush third movement (Demi-soupir) casts a spell that's both infectious and mysterious, while the final movement, whose translated title is Brusque Bourrée, brings us back to the satirical, tongue-in-cheek lightness of the earlier movements, but this time in 5/4 time punctuated by harlequinesque piano jabs.  This Florent Schmitt piece is a relative rarity, but on the strength of Garth Newel's splashy and committed performance, it's a very worthy composition that deserves to be better known.

Following the Schmitt, for the salad course three members of the quartet returned to the stage to perform the second movement (Vite) of Chausson's Piano Trio in G minor. This early work was composed in 1882 under the clear influence of Chausson's teacher César Franck, and it's replete with all sorts of thick textures and high drama in the outer movements. Little of this is to be found in the utterly charming second movement, a rustic scherzo, which was played with jaunty elán by Ling, Melamed and Fang. It certainly made one wish to hear more of Chausson's score.

Following the entrée course of lamb, the next work on the program was Ravel's Piano Trio in A minor. Dating from 1914 and quite far removed in character from Chausson's trio, this work was one that gave Ravel ample opportunity to explore his fascination with classical forms, particularly in the first movement. It was given a ravishing performance by Ling, Melamed and Fang.

The second movement (Pantoum) is a sort of scherzo, using some of the same thematic material from the first movement. The music's great sense of contrast was on full display here, leading to a brilliant climax, pulse-quickening to say the least.

The third movement (Passacaille) came as a major contrast, yet reaching a fervent and passionate climax before diminishing back into quietude. The final movement, with its opening harmonies remindful of the Far East, gives themes of the preceding movements one last opportunity to shine, the ecstatic trills in the violin and cello being particularly winsome. Here again, the musical contrasts brought forth by the players were spine-tingling. In all, this was one of the most impressive performances I have ever heard of this music.

The final work on the program to accompany the dessert course (crêpes, of course) was a movement from Chopin's Cello Sonata in G minor.  It isn't a French work per se, but it was written by a composer who spent a good deal of his career in France, often in the company of the glamorous novelist George Sand. It took Chopin the better part of two years to complete writing the sonata, which was one of the composer's last published scores (1848).

In tonight's performance, pianist Fang and cellist Melamed presented the poetic third movement, a Largo, with almost choral-like simplicity, the cello and piano alternating in an exquisite dialogue. It was an apt way to conclude the evening's dîner et concert on a most agreeable note, sending the appreciative audience out into the night with well-satiated appetites in every sense of the term.