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Now that the Chamber Arts Society is associated with the highly successful and internationally respected Duke Performances, they are not only able to continue booking the finest chamber ensembles (let's admit it, mostly string quartets) in the world, but venture into commissioning works by some of the greatest composers. Saturday night they presented a nearly unprecedented quadruple header: a return of one of the great ensembles to Duke, a performance of possibly the greatest chamber work ever written, a world premiere of a work by one of the most respected composers of our time co-commissioned by Duke, and a world renowned guest solo artist as an added bonus.
But even more than that, the presiding spirit and honor for this concert goes to Franz Schubert (1797-1828), the composer who, in my opinion even more than Mozart, causes us to fantasize the "what if" he had lived even five more years. The Pacifica Quartet, consisting of Simin Ganatra and Sibbi Bernhardsson, violins, Masumi Per Rostad, viola, and Brandon Vamos, cello, were joined by the young cello virtuoso Johannes Moser in a program dedicated to Schubert's monumentally profound String Quintet in C. Completed just two months before his death, the power, universality, and spiritual effect it has on even the causal listener has perhaps never been equaled.
But first we had a chance to hear a brief introduction by Julia Wolfe, the prolific Pulitzer Prize winning composer who, among many other partnerships, has been closely identified with the Bang on a Can All-Stars. For this world premiere of her cello quintet named Splendid Hopes, she explained that she chose this title based on that phrase used by Schubert in a very sad letter written late in his life. In both her equally very brief personal remarks and program notes, she did not claim for her work to be based in any way on Schubert's Quintet. I got the sense that her brevity was a conscious attempt to avoid any linguistic "explanation" of her composition.
Splendid Hopes, written for the Pacifica Quartet and Moser, is approximately twenty-five minutes in one continuous movement. It is quite traditional in the sense of using and building on patterns and motifs introduced at the beginning and expanding and developing those. The first section is blatantly minimalist with the lead cello repeating a simple interval. There is an (over) abundance of the use of a tremolo technique throughout the five string players, perhaps giving the listener the sense of yearning, but overstaying its initial welcome. One of these tremolo episodes led into the big finale which was quite different from the rest of the work and well worth the wait. Moser had a creatively written virtuosic part that had his cello filling up Baldwin Auditorium as big as the Flentrop organ at Duke Chapel. New rhythms, sonorities and ideas flooded into this closing section and had me convinced that this would soon be a welcome addition to the sparsely populated cello quintet repertoire.
People who tend to be more literal-minded and enjoy pure musical analysis can indeed have a field day with just the compositional elements of Schubert's massive quintet in C. But that would be only lightly scratching the surface, although attempts at poetry and profound interpretations might also prove futile. All the musicians can do (assuming technical mastery) is present their vision and hope it moves each of us.
As is often the case with a guest soloist playing with an established ensemble, the guest accedes first chair to the group member. So here, Moser played the second cello part while Vamos played first. However, especially in the second movement, second by no means indicates an "easier" or less important part. The first movement is a universe unto itself made even grander here by their choice to repeat the exposition making this very long work that much more so. The themes are exquisitely Schubertian in both their intense beauty and deceptive simplicity. My one critique of the performance, especially in the first movement, was some balance issues particularly with the second violin which I had trouble hearing. The second movement is a magical evocation of time standing still sustained by sensuous harmonies while snippets of musical fireflies flit around and above us. That finally erupts into a yearning urgency with the second cello anchoring an insistent pattern.
Watching these musicians perform was a study in contrasts, perhaps an indicator of the familiarity of the four quartet members vs. Moser as a guest. The four Pacifica players seemed to be attuned so no outward show of psychic contact was necessary. Moser looked as joyous and happy as a little kid as he constantly looked around engaging the players and reveling in the privilege of playing such superb music.
While nothing is "usual" here, the final two movements are a bit more traditional and similar to other late Schubert quartets. The scherzo and trio is a study in contrasts while the finale is a virtuosic, wildly exciting romp to the finish. The concluding affect/effect is certainly more upbeat than the near morbid emotional intensity of the first two movements. One can only hope that Schubert was still able to find some solace and a small degree of happiness in a life that, except for music, was predominantly misery.