in: Reviews

January 7, 2011

Arcturus Starts New Year at JP Concerts

by

Abigail Kerr, Su Jeon, Sarah Darling, Kate Hayes, Jesse Irons (BMInt staff photo)

The Arcturus Chamber Ensemble gave a big-hearted performance of Webern, Beethoven and Schumann tonight as part of the JP Concerts, a series presented each Thursday at St. John’s Church in Jamaica Plain.

Opening with Webern’s Langsamer Satz for String Quartet, Arcturus produced room-filling sonority that wrapped around Webern’s elegiac sonorities. The warmth of their playing matched that of the music; it was in a romantic style with generous coloration and vibrato. Hearing them was like being invited to join a deeply personal conversation among old friends. Probably because Arcturus presents ad hoc assemblages of the friends of their leader, violist, Sarah Darling, there is an interpretive democracy that avoids personal domination. The playing of first violinist Jesse Irons lent a special sweetness for what is essentially a love song.

For those who know Webern only for his later twelve-tone work, Langsamer Satz is a profound revelation. He composed it at age twenty-one while experiencing the first stirrings of passion for the woman he would eventually marry. This is the work of the “Romantic” before the “post-.”

Beethoven’s String Quartet in E Flat Major, Op. 74 gave Arcturus a chance to release its youthful energies and invigorate a piece whose first two movements are rich with opportunities the players seized, to prolong the good feelings generated by the Webern. For this piece, with two changes in personnel and a change in seating and with the viola and cello reversed from the norm, Arcturus elected to play in a grittier classical style. The poco adagio-allegro first movement nevertheless had its gemuetlich warmth in the fine playing of cellist Josh Packard and violist Sarah Darling.

The adagio ma non troppo second movement did not reach the profundity one expects from that noble movement, perhaps because of the youth of the players, or more likely from the over-reverberant acoustic and insistent air-handler drone that robbed the pianissimos of tension and focus.

In the turbulent and highly dramatic the presto third movement, Arcturus hit its stride with driven yet elegant and insightful playing at a very high level. The romantic in Beethoven was on luxurious display. Violinists Annie Rabbat and Ethan Wood never faltered in keeping the excitement soaring. Any uncertainty evident up until then was banished.

With Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E Flat, Major, Op. 44, one was disappointed by a piano that had neither the size nor the brilliance to hold its own, despite the nuanced playing of Su Jeon. St. John’s well-maintained 1915 Mason Hamlin Model A has a singing tone in its midrange, but from a seat midway back in the nave it simply lacked what was needed — power and bass. It certainly was incapable of overbalancing the strings.

Returning to the standard seating, with viola on the right, the players evoked an altogether different style. On this outing they sounded like recordings of quartets in the 1920s, with delicious slides and a very light vibrato. The first movement, though, had the only really shaky moments of the evening. The pianist did not maintain even tempi and the cellist distorted several rhythms

That said, the energy generated by Arcturus – notably in the second and third movements – drew a sense of joy from the music that was contagious. Cellist Kate Haynes turned in an especially note-worthy performance, her rich tone providing emotional heft. Abigail Karr as first violinist provided a calm, focused direction that allowed Schumann’s repeats to add sheen with each subsequent playing.

Arcturus members perform together on an ad hoc basis. Most are young music professionals in the early stages of developing careers. They have yet to develop the level of precision that comes with playing together for years. Indeed, in this concert, three different violinists sat in the first chair, two cellists alternated, and the second violin for the first two pieces turned pages for the pianist in the third. From time to time, a lack of musical intimacy was apparent. But based on the high quality of their playing in this concert, it can only be hoped that they will find a way to spend more time together to refine their ensemble work. These are musicians with much to offer in years to come.

The real star of the evening was the JP Concerts series itself. It is a remarkable venue that deserves the full support of the Boston musical community. Since May 2007, it has been presenting concerts at St. John’s. Now they have settled on having a concert every Thursday evening from September through May. It starts with the coziness of the Victorian gothic architecture of St. John’s, which is tucked wait between Center and Washington Streets atop Sumner Hill. The musicians seem to know many people in the audience, generating a friendly buzz before the music starts and afterwards.

The church itself is welcoming. Executive Director Ken Brooks, who led its music ministry for four years, says that St, John’s is making a conscious effort to reach out to its community and to make its resources available. A Hook organ that was originally installed in the church’s previous location a few blocks away is a concert-quality instrument used by performers. Brooks says that the success of the series to date – performances by A Far Cry and some other groups have been filled to capacity – comes from the consistency of having something every week.

“People show up,” Brooks says, “knowing they are going to hear good music, even if they have not checked to see who is going to be performing.” The early start of at 7:00 PM allows for a second performance on full-house nights. Or, as happened tonight, a second ensemble showed up wanting to play. Called K2, its two musicians perform their original music on double bass and violin. Many of those who had come for the Arcturus Chamber Ensemble stayed on and enjoyed the pair’s innovative duets.

“Jamaica Plan is full of musicians,” says JP Concerts artistic director, Peter Terry. “What we have here is a place with great acoustics where people want to perform, to be heard, to hear their friends.” There is a genuine sense of conviviality that permeates the evening. Terry points out that the artists appearing at St. John’s come from all over. “We had a guitar and piano duo from Holland last year,” he reports. “They came to do a tour of the US, and started it here with JP Concerts. They had heard about us on line. We were thrilled to have them.”

As word of the concerts spread and audiences grow, the series may want consider installing a riser for the performers to provide an increased sense of contact with the audience, especially those at the back. A bit of theatrical lighting would provide more visual focus on the players. But those are small quibbles. The good feeling arising from time spent with JP Concerts in that place with those artists is to be cherished.

Concerts cost $10. Information on upcoming programs can be had from the JP Concerts’ website, or by calling 617-874-4009

Stephen Landrigan is a former journalist and concert presenter.

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