A small but mighty audience gathered in the Church of the Advent on the flat of Beacon Hill on an autumnal Friday night for a currently rare occurrence: in-person chamber music. Sheltered by the vaulted wooden ceilings and tall walls of brick, 25-30 concert goers spread out in pews that could host hundreds— in compliance with masking and social distancing guidelines. In the minutes before the start, one could hear splatters of footsteps and echoey chatter from the house, while the evening’s quartet rehearsed some particularly chromatic passages off-stage, as the modest crowd generated a palpable buzz.
As the evening’s ad hoc foursome of Sophia Bernitz and Sophie Wang, violins; Daniel Orsen, viola; and Timothy Paek, cello shuffled to the apse-cum-stage, the audience quieted and warmly welcomed Jamaica Plain Chambermusic’s Artistic Director Orsen. Succinct and apparently happy to be there, Orsen explicated the move to Church and expressed gratitude, especially to the warden and rector, for hosting the remainder of the company’s fall series. Perhaps a bit anxious to get to the music, he forwent an introduction to the two programmed masterworks, adding, with a grin “I’m not going to say anything [about the pieces]; you just get to hear them.”
By movement II, Assez vif et bien rythmé, the quartet took on a more tasteful command, as they capitalized on the organic growth happening in the movement’s texture and dynamic. The excellent pizzicato tone balanced with smooth and fluid rhythmic connection. Here they began to capture and communicate the restless divinity residing in Debussy’s undulating, bubbling, and sparring textures. With occasional darting eyes to the audience, Bernitz attracted attention beyond just her effusive and sensitive playing. In the first two movements, I felt she overplayed slightly, constantly adjusting the dynamic and tone in a way that took away from the natural melodic statements. Though as they continued, I felt her settle in; as time went on, her sensitivity and fluidity masterfully captured Debussy’s fluctuations in tone and mood.
After an unceremoniously long break before the Andantino, doucement expressif Movement III, the quartet showed some exceptionally tight ensemble playing. Balance and blending on chords shone brightly here. Especially from the canonic entrances, you could tell they listened deeply to each other. The heights of the last movement disarmed this critic, as the earlier instability stabilized; this Très modéré – En animant peu à peu – Très mouvementé et avec passion positively transcended. Altogether some immensely heartfelt playing provided a fine respite.
Then on to Brahms String Quartet no. 2 in A minor, op.51.2, in which the violinists switched chairs. Their styles mirrored the contrasts in the compositions: Debussyian softness from Bernitz and lucidity, and a Brahmsian directness, complication from Wang. You could compare them to water and glue; Bernitz shifting emotive, expressive, and presence, while Wang’s searing tone rang as a bedrock to the quartet’s sound.
In Brahms’s more functional and linear sense of tonal harmony, the ensemble furnished the highly narrative work with a superb sound. Now, under the detail-smothering vaults, all the shifting and changing Brahmsian, quasi-orchestral textures lost me somewhat. With such a serpentine formal structure, a bit more time and space within each moment could have delineated the form. More sensitivity to harmonic shifts — and gradation of expression between narrative signposts — could have helped this critic follow more closely through this immersive and virtuosic journey. In the best moments, though, the melodies sung out clearly as the orchestral textures swelled and reduced. It was a pleasant and rocky ride.
Though these were not the most visually animated players, there were some moments of life and play between them — could catch a furrowed eyebrow, or a signaled cue.
The ensembles taste for harmonies showed again at the end of movement II, Andante moderato, with some deliciously balanced, thickly voiced chord and double stops.
By the Quasi Minuetto, moderato third movement, execution completely aligned with the music. The four temperaments seemed to blend with the character Brahms demanded in orchestrated swells and transitions as well as in rapid-fire, laser-toned staccato. Wang and Bernitz had great chemistry together.
In the continued utterance of the circle of fifths, mellifluous passagework and exuberance spoke directly through the Finale, Allegro non assai. With a more formally transparent moment, they played with glassy, shimmering tone, positively nailing the glorious and ravishing harmonious sequences. Ultimately the Brahms clarified, closing with drama and grace.
Though the informal gathering provided no programs, or intermission, the audience lingered. We were grateful for a night of passionate and virtuosic music in a social setting.
Nate Shaffer is a pianist, composer and improviser, currently pursuing a music doctorate at Tufts University. He’s an avid barbershop singer, a member of local men’s chorus Vocal Revolution, and can be seen performing regularly as a pianist at ImprovBoston.