During its 30th anniversary season, Candlelight Concerts won't exactly be saving its best for last.
In fact, with a concert season that opens with the Guarneri String Quartet, Columbia's state-of-the-art chamber series is putting its best foot forward from the start.
The quartet has been hailed as one of the world's greatest chamber ensembles since its founding at Vermont's Marlboro Music Festival in 1964.
In an unprecedented display of artistic consistency, the original foursome would remain together for the next 36 years.
Two years ago, cellist David Soyer retired from the group, giving way to Peter Wiley, who had been performing with the equally prestigious Beaux Arts Trio. Without missing a beat, Wiley has joined violinists Arnold Steinhard, John Dalley and violist Michael Tree at the apex of string chamber playing - as the quartet has continued to craft the high-energy, larger-than-life interpretations for which it became famous.
Quartets by Haydn and Beethoven - composers with whom the Guarneri Quartet has long been associated - will anchor the group's October program.
Later in the season, it will be followed onto the Smith Theatre stage by two other top-notch quartets.
In January, Candlelight welcomes the Marian Anderson String Quartet, which became the first African-American ensemble to win a major competition in classical music when it was awarded first prize at the International Cleveland Quartet Competition in 1991.
Then known as the Chaminade Quartet, the members asked for permission to use Marian Anderson in their name. Anderson was the lustrous African-American contralto who broke many color barriers in her career. She died in 1993. The request was granted, and the members continue to honor past and present with their superb music making.
For their Candlelight visit, the Anderson quartet will be joined by Raymond Jackson, the pianist-in-residence at Howard University, in the Piano Quartet of Johannes Brahms.
Returning to Columbia this season is the Ying Quartet, an ensemble of three brothers and a sister. Local subscribers said the group gave the "best concert of the season" the last time they appeared on Candlelight's bill.
The Yings will deviate some from the tried and true repertory path at their February concert. They will play works by Samuel Barber, Ned Rorem, Chinese composer Chen Yi and (returning to the mainstream) Ludwig van Beethoven.
Of course, sonatas and trios are part of the chamber music experience, and Candlelight obliges with those segments of the repertoire as well.
Intensely emotional pieces for cello and piano by Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich and Prokofiev will be performed by David Finckel, cellist of the world-class Emerson Quartet, and his wife, pianist Wu Han, at the Nov. 9 concert.
Violinist Regis Pasquier, cellist Roland Pidoux and pianist Jean-Claude Pennetier, who perform together as the Paris Piano Trio, will play trios by Haydn, Schubert and Chausson at their concert in March.
Baroque enthusiasts will be pleased with Candlelight's engagement of Red Priest, the original instrument performers from the United Kingdom who have borrowed Antonio Vivaldi's colorful nickname to provide them with some name recognition. Their February "Baroque Fantasy" will include works by Bach, Purcell, Tartini, Corelli and, yes, the Red Priest himself.
Gilles Vonsattel, a 21-year-old Swiss pianist trained at New York's Juilliard School and Columbia University, comes to Columbia in November.
Vonsattel, who won first prize at the Boston Symphony Competition in 1999, also is the 2002 winner of the Naumburg Award.
While other competition promoters have turned their events into highly publicized gladiatorial struggles, the Naumburg Foundation has spent the past seven decades carefully nurturing the careers of gifted young musicians. A list of past winners reads like a Who's Who of the 20th century music scene. Perhaps Vonsattel will have the stuff to follow in the footsteps of Awadagin Pratt and Stephen Hough, recent Naumburg pianists who have gone on to fashion solid and interesting careers.
For ethnomusicological flair, one could not ask for more than the conch shells, ceremonial drums and Sioux courtship flutes used by the Quintet of the Americas in their renditions of South American habaneras and Native American dances. Their fiesta of North and South American musical treasures is scheduled for April 5.
Aficionados of the guitar will note the season-ending concert by Franco Palatino, whose debut recording on the enterprising Naxos label garnered him the Golden Guitar award for the Best Italian Classical Guitar Record of the Year in 2000.
Candlelight Concerts 2002-2003 Performing Arts Series
All concerts will begin at 8 p.m. at Smith Theatre on the campus of Howard Community College in Columbia. Information or to order season subscriptions: 410-715-0034 or 301-596-6203.
Oct. 26: The Guarneri String Quartet
Nov. 9: David Finckel, cello; Wu Han, piano
Nov. 23: Naumburg Competition winner Gilles Vonsattel, piano
Jan. 11: Marian Anderson String Quartet; Raymond Jackson, piano
Feb. 1: Red Priest
Feb. 22: Ying Quartet
March 1: Paris Piano Trio
April 5: Quintet of the Americas
May 3: Franco Platino, guitar