Violist Sarah Darling founded The Arcturus Chamber Ensemble as a means for musical colleagues to connect and communicate. Eleven years later, she is still gathering players from all over the world to explore a variety of repertoire as a community, not just an ensemble. Her endeavor made for some inspired musical networking at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Jamaica Plain on Thursday, June 2. (The concert repeats on Sunday in Carlisle.)
Described by Darling as “the big German expressionist thing, only backwards,” Thursday night’s program opened with the claustrophobic dissonance and stabbing syncopation of Webern’s Six Bagatelles for String Quartet, Opus 9. Violist Darling, violinists Ethan Wood and Sharon Cohen, and cellist Michael Unterman brought beautiful tone, clear lines and sensitive interplay to Webern’s unnerving miniatures. Their warm sound was a foil for the icy score, and actually enhanced the sense of tension. During the “Ausserst langsam” movement, tightly packed harmonies, answered by a soft, poignant pluck from the first violin, illustrated four friends working their way through an intricate, disturbing, yet ultimately rewarding narrative. The last movement, “Fliessend,” proved an effective segue when the group repeated this very short work from the beginning.
Brahms’ Piano Trio in C Minor, Opus 101 also explored some darker moods, this time via throbbing Romanticism. Violinist Annie Rabbat, cellist Josh Packard and pianist Su Jeon stormed in on the first movement “Allegro energico,” yet they avoided overstatement throughout the rest of the piece. The trio maintained continuity of texture and pacing, though occasionally some of Packard’s lowest notes resonated over his partners’ lines. Jeon’s dancing piano cascades were a highlight of the “Presto non assai,” as were Rabbat and Packard’s buttery pizzicato pyramids. While the “Andante Grazioso” pranced along too daintily, the group charged through the concluding “Allegro Molto” and ended this work triumphantly.
Oddly enough, next to Webern’s jagged surfaces and Brahms’ shifting storms, Beethoven’s String Quartet in E Flat Major, Opus 127 had the most eyebrow-raising moments on the program. The concluding ensemble clearly relished this work’s high-speed modulations and false endings. Violinist Jesse Irons was a confident yet responsive leader, knowing just how to milk the opening flourishes of the “Maestoso-Allegro” (though his mannerisms were a bit thick towards the very end of the third movement “Adagio”). Irons’ sweet, dry tone contrasted nicely with Packard’s smoother cello lines underneath, and Rabbat’s darker violin sound and Darling’s rich viola provided further textural contrast that never obstructed ensemble blend.
The group’s precise coordination and hair-trigger dynamics illuminated the wit and pathos of Beethoven’s score, such as the surprisingly humorous theme that emerges after a climactic build in the “Adagio.” By the second statement of the “Scherzando Vivace”’s cocky theme, the group had generated an ensemble rhythm as catchy as a backbeat or tarantella.
Seeing the smiles and pensive stares on these artists’ faces, or catching two players looking across from one another in joyous discovery, further illustrated how ensemble accuracy is as much a matter of communication as rehearsal. Like most good conversations, even occasional mispronunciation is just a sign of spontaneity and comfort. Arcturus is comprised of experienced professionals, yet they bring the warmth of a group of like-minded colleagues.
Arcturus will be performing this program on Sunday, June 5, at 4:00 pm at First Religious Society in Carlisle, 27 School Street, Carlisle.