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Pacifica Brings Hope from Schubert

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Johannes Moser (file photo)

Adding a cello to a string quartet provides an extra dimension to the harmonic richness of string chamber music. The Pacifica Quartet and its frequent cellist collaborator Johannes Moser explored this depth of sound in their Schubert-themed performance at the Gardner.

In a letter to his friend Leopold Kupelwieser, Schubert described the despondent state of his life: “think of a man, I say, whose splendid hopes have come to naught, to whom the happiness of love and friendship offer nothing but acutest pain”. Out of this letter of profound sadness, the American composer Julia Wolfe picked out “splendid hopes” as an inspiration for her eponymous String Quintet. In a piece written for the Pacifica Quartet and Moser, Wolfe aimed to reflect the optimism and struggle that pervades through hope.

This piece had two clear themes; a twitchy tremolo buzz and a thick, chordal, and rhythmical series of harmonic progressions. The interplay between these two themes among different instrument combinations characterized the quintet’s interpretation of this work. The tremolo started in the lower strings with Brandon Vamos joining Moser on cello, before moving to the upper strings. The depth of harmonic playing was evident when the ensemble came together for the dissonant chordal progressions with each player inching semitones at a time towards the next sequence. The quintet’s power of sound, aided by the additional cello, projected well in the performance and offered a particular inspiration to the composer. Near the end, each player had a passage that resembled string-crossing etudes, which brought a striking visual element with the wavy motion of elbows flowing through the ensemble.

Schubert composed the Cello Quintet in C Major D. 956, a cornerstone of the chamber music repertoire, as well as his three momentous piano sonatas in 1828, his final year. With the rich harmony from the additional cello, Schubert could use a bass melody to complement the first violin.

The first movement started with a dawn-like appearance of C major which disappeared into a dissonance as soon as the crescendo finished. It reminded this author of a lingering afterthought from the Wolfe quintet in the first half that the ensemble had not shaken off. The two celli beautifully presented the first subject, a flowing melodic line, with poignant eye-contact between Vamos and Moser to aid their synchrony. Simin Ganatra and Austin Hartman reflected this melody on violin, this time using their swaying bodies to communicate to each other. The energy of this quintet, especially in the minor keys and unexpected harmonies, shone through in the development section.

The adagio showed vividly the benefits from the extra cello, in a dialogue between first violin and first cello that stood on a bedrock of string trio harmony. Ganatra’s singing legato, vibrato, and portamento contrasted well with Moser’s sharp pizzicato. Ganatra’s own pizzicato later in the movement, though, lacked the same intensity as her cello counterpart.

The dance of the scherzo suited the rhythmical spirit of this quintet especially with the vigorous movements and tapping feet of each player. Ganatra gave a spritely introduction of the main tune followed by a mellower interpretation by Hartman on second violin and Mark Holloway on viola. This author, seated on the ground level, experienced the intensity of the cello bass notes palpably. The rondo finale continued the dance of the previous movement, this time with a Hungarian twist. Ganatra provided excellent clarity of the gypsy-style with her intonation and bowing in the higher string passages. This movement and the concert ended with four explosive chords well-suited to the dynamic power of this quintet.

Ken Wu, an amateur pianist and violinist, is currently an editorial fellow at the New England Journal of Medicine and a pediatric resident training in London in the UK. He has been orchestra manager for the London Doctors’ Orchestra and Choir and currently plays violin in the Kendall Square Orchestra.  

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