Arlington’s 9th Street Quartet Wows Crowd at St. George's Church

Arlington’s 9th Street Quartet Wows Crowd at St. George's Church

... and manages to tie in Jane Austen to Schubert

Cellist Benjamin Wensel

Cellist Benjamin Wensel

When the 9th Street Quartet (9SQ) says their season finale will be “vibrant,” they mean it. Many Arlingtonians willingly gave up the first warm Sunday in a long time for a concert given by the Quartet, a concert which promised to link Franz Schubert with Jane Austen. Expectations were heightened when Violinist Matt Richardson described Schubert’s Cello Quintet in C Major as one of the most beautiful pieces of chamber music in the world, one which had set him on the path to life in a string quartet. Expectations increased when guest cellist Benjamin Wensel was introduced. And as Richardson said, “Once we put Schubert on the program, the hard question was: what to put with it?” The answer was “Visions and Miracles'' by Christopher Theofanidis. And then Richardson, as he so often does, foreshadowed some of the highlights of the first piece, alerting the audience to the possibility of imagining trajectories, visions, ashes, space capsules and joy. 

Richardson pointed out there were small children in the audience, and that they were most welcome (most of them belonged to the performers). It was, after all, Sunday afternoon. Richardson told the crowd there were “no applause shamers here at 9th street quartet. If you applaud in between movements we won’t mind. We’d rather you not stress over when to clap.” Very 9SQ. 

The first piece, “Visions and Miracles” by American composer and Professor of Composition at Yale University, Christopher Theofanidis, was very modern, with plenty of the minor notes that are edgy but then assuaged by more color chords and even the occasional familiar “Do Re Mi Fa So La” scales or an old melody. “Visions and Miracles” was, as promised, full of images and emotion. Theofanidis’ work is known for its exploration of dreams, visions, and metaphysics. He has told people he turned to the reflective influence of poetry in order to compose new works of a more sanguine nature after writing some pretty dark pieces. This piece is magical.

Schubert’s works, bridging the Classical and Romantic compositional styles, are famous for their lyricism, inventive textures and harmonic expression. The addition of a second cello to the traditional string quartet was an unusual thing for Schubert to do. The resonant second cello added depth and texture and the second cellist was clearly having a great time playing it. Completed just two months prior to Schubert’s untimely death at the age of 31, the cello quintet remained unpublished for nearly 30 years, but once out in the public, became celebrated. 

Schubert’s quintet required some vigorous playing and listening. It was the soundtrack to falling in love, flirting, a lover’s quarrel, and a kiss. The pizzicato from both cello and violin were evocative; the second, adagio movement is pure emotion. A lovely resolution at the end of the second would have been enough to call it a great piece of music. The third and more turbulent movement puts all of that emotion in question, and the fourth returns to a happier place, with a Gypsy-like folk song melody, intensity and crescendo, and then, an amazing, joyous, triumphant ending, as though the musicians had done battle and at last run their epée through to victory … the five musicians playing frantically and then pulling their bows together for one long final chord of relief.

Cellist Benjamin Wensel has performed with the National Symphony Orchestra, Baltimore Symphony, Pro Musica Chamber Orchestra, Rochester Philharmonic, Syracuse Symphony, and has been a member of The U.S. Army Orchestra, Strolling Strings, and String Quartet since 2003. He earned degrees from the Cleveland Institute of Music and Eastman School of Music. At Eastman, he served as assistant to renowned pedagogue Alan Harris.

So where was Jane Austen in all this? 9SQ was joined by members of the local chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America. The post-concert chat revealed there was no reason to believe Jane Austen heard Schubert and no reason to believe he read her books, but they were contemporaries for about ten yearsAnd had similarities: both died young, both broke barriers with their writing and 

composing, both lived in an era where music was extremely intimate and important, 

Both were romantics and both remained unmarried. 

Allison Otto, of the local Jane Austen Society, told the crowd there was no sheet music easily available, no internet, no recordings. A Schubert piece might reach the U.S. thirty years after it was first played in Europe. Austen may have heard Mozart and Haydn thanks to her brother in London, but otherwise her sphere of music depended on friends to hand-copy music she could play on her piano-forte at home. Dr. Michelle Richardson, who has a PhD in music, said the crossover of the simple folk music Jane Austen danced to, and Schubert built into his cello quintet, was frequent. Several folk tunes possess the distinctive characteristics heard in the melodies of Haydn; Beethoven arranged Irish airs. 

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