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What is it about chamber music that provides such a special and satisfying experience for the music lover? I have pondered this question many times since being bowled over by Schubert’s String Quintet at the first chamber music concert I attended and many, many more since then. It is obvious that chamber music is usually performed in a smaller setting, providing a unique interaction between performers and audience. Chamber music always displays a virtuosic and intimate interplay between musicians of extraordinary technical and interpretive skill who have achieved a oneness of presentation. Each group has some performance or staging trait that is theirs alone; the way they dress, the level of energy they allow themselves to display, their style, and the repertoire they choose.
The Pacifica Quartet (violinists Simin Ganatra and Sibbi Bernhardsson, violist Masumi Per Rostad and cellist Brandon Vamos) was joined by the notable pianist Wu Han for a concert presented by the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild at Fletcher Opera Theater in the Progress Energy Center. They received a warmer reception than they did on their last visit when snow was on the ground and only a handful of music lovers braved the treacherous streets. The quartet brought with them more than 12 years of performing together, several impressive awards, and a reputation for virtuosity and energetic performance. One of the first things I noticed was at the end of vigorous passages they would usually end on an up-bow, their bows extended over their heads at perfectly matched angles. It may be a bit of staging and showmanship but it was done well and was a striking visual touch.
On this day I felt I was a part of the best of nineteenth and early twentieth century romanticism. With Bedrich Smetana's Quartet No. 1 in E minor ("From My Life"), I felt I was eavesdropping on his youthful joys and loves, his tragic hearing loss, his grief process and his ultimate triumph. I was privy to a young violist playing at the first private performance who was to powerfully influence the music world in years to come — Antonín Dvorák. Chamber music often feels like a private performance just for you and a few friends. Pacifica played as advertised with vigor and passion, and the music lived.
Another Czech master of a later generation appeared next. In Leos Janácek's Quartet No. 2 ("Intimate Letters"), we are allowed a glimpse into his consuming obsession with Kamila Stosslova, forty years younger and married. The performance was filled with almost unbearable tenderness, bittersweet affection and the mysticism required to endure such an impossible relationship. Yet here I was, a part of this emotional and deeply felt tryst. The quartet has recently recorded this work and it was clear that they were one with it.
For the closing piece on this program I was in Leipzig at the home of Robert Schumann’s friends Carl and Henriette Voight. He had composed his Quintet for Piano and Strings in E-flat as a birthday gift for Clara. Alas, Clara was ill and in her stead a notable friend, Felix Mendelssohn, sight-read the complicated piano part (not that pianist Wu Han bears any resemblance to Mendelssohn). The challenges of this seminal work were met fully. The piano and strings balanced as one unit, enriching and blending with each other when doubling themes and complimenting each other when playing counterpoint or accompaniment.
The Pacifica Quartet and pianist Han are excellent musical magicians, able to transport me to different times and different places and to enable me to experience emotions that go beyond time and space. I continue to learn what is special about chamber music. In this case, it was the music itself performed just for a few friends and me.