Pacifica Quartet featuring Johannes Moser, cello
Photo courtesy of Duke Performances
Saturday, November 5
Duke's Baldwin Auditorium, Durham
Both quintets in Saturday's concert featuring Pacifica Quartet with Johannes Moser began with glowing major chords gradually emerging from silence. From there, each work spun out in a completely different direction: Julia Wolfe’s Splendid Hopes
into a tightly wound ball of nerves, Franz Schubert’s cello quintet into deep exhales and perpetual melodies. The Wolfe piece was co-commissioned by Duke Performances, and this was its world premiere. Wolfe—a 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner
and 2016 MacArthur Fellow
—is one of the foremost composers of our time, and it’s fantastic that she premiered the work here.
In her introduction to the piece, Wolfe talked about reading a despondent letter that Schubert wrote near the end of his life. Amid all the sadness, a single phrase jumped out at her because of its strange sense of aspiration: “splendid hopes” became the central metaphor for her piece—as well as its title. The quintet that resulted, though, was anything but aspirational. It was a seething mass of agitation in five or so colors, which only occasionally allowed that hope to shine through.
Much of the work was spent on two basic ideas: a melting chorale and a jittery, burbling theme centered around a single pitch. The first two-thirds of the twenty-minute piece is one long exploration of the different possibilities of those ideas. The result is a study in different flavors of tremolo—an audience member sitting next to me described it as an exercise in bowing, which is not that far from the truth given the massive physical effort the work requires. Wolfe has a spectacular way of prolonging tension by moving through complex webs of dissonant chords. They flex and bend, shot through with “wrong” notes that only enhance the dissonance. The piece sits in that moment right before resolution for what seems like an eternity, to the point where the resolution, when it arrives, is already compromised. But at the same time, some of the piece's most intense moments arrive when the texture thins and a single player (often cellists Moser or Brandon Vamos) lingers on a single, quiet note with a charged uncertainty that’s almost unbearable. I found myself wishing that I could sit in the middle of the quintet to fully absorb the depth of these sonic colors.
Within all of this tension were occasional bursts of light: the aforementioned opening chords, a few magnificent chorale-like duos in the cellos or violins, some sporadic glistening harmonies. And, after the explosion of devilishly difficult arpeggios in the work’s final third, the short dénouement tied everything together. But even those moments were subsumed within the vortex of the whole. In short, it was a quintessential Julia Wolfe piece, tumbling forward with clenched fists. A friend said it reminded him of his feelings about this presidential election cycle. As with much of Wolfe’s music, it’s not always enjoyable, but it is incredibly beautiful and affecting, the kind of piece that forces you to reevaluate what you value in a musical experience.
It was an interesting experience hearing Schubert’s magnificent cello quintet after Splendid Hopes
. Completed months before his death in 1828, the work has an ecstatic charge, bursting with plush melodies and delicious harmonic turns. It is arguably one of the greatest pieces of chamber music ever written. And yet, in the shadow of the Wolfe piece, it had a slightly different cast. The rumbling tremolos and piquant dissonances felt a little bit sharper; the arpeggios and flashing figurations a little more on edge. It didn’t perturb the otherwise uncanny surface of the work, but it added some extra layers to it. I even wondered what might happen if the tense middle section of the second movement could be replaced with the Wolfe (even if that might result in the players’ arms actually falling off).
Pacifica Quartet and Moser offered a spirited, if occasionally overexuberant, performance. Moser was clearly having an absolute blast, even if he occasionally indulged in an overpowered pizz or an excessive run up the C string. They were at their best in the luscious duos in the first movement, the sturm und drang in the middle of the second, and charged stillness of the third movement’s trio. I wish they had taken the outer sections of the second movement a few clicks slower to bask in its unearthly blush. And their intonation seemed just off enough to disrupt the flow of the scherzo. The audience didn’t seem to mind, though, giving the group a rousing ovation at the end.
Taken as a whole, it was a very satisfying set of contrasts.