Young Ensemble Rings in New Year in Pioneer Valley

Monica Hunter-Hart on January 17, 2015
Route 9 Ensemble

Warm holiday cheer filled Northampton, Massachusetts’ Christian Science Center this past December 31st as the Route 9 Ensemble charmed listeners with a diverse array of chamber music.

Northampton’s First Night festival has ushered in the New Year since 1985, regularly drawing crowds of all ages to attend music, dance, and theater performances. Route 9 was a new participant this year — and indeed, is a young ensemble, now embarking on its second season — but it chose a program to fit the family-oriented First Night audiences. A mix of popular but dissimilar composers, from Antonín Dvořák to Dave Brubeck, met across genres, eras, and cultures: That variety, which also combined short pieces and excerpts, kept the concert constantly fresh.

Route 9’s membership fluctuates, but it currently includes about 10 string players hailing from a variety of northeastern schools. This concert featured four members: violinists Michelle Painter and Madeleine Jansen, violist Amy Bateman, and cellist Molly Aronson, who together spoke of their love of music and collaboration with touching earnestness. “The spirit of our music-making is born out of friendship,” Jansen declared in introduction. We have every reason to believe them: These women play with a uniformity born of close familiarity. Demonstrating an uncompetitive camaraderie, Painter and Jansen genially traded off the role of first violin.[The four musicians] spoke of their love of music and collaboration with touching earnestness. … These women play with a uniformity born of close familiarity.

Route 9 chose timeless favorites such as Giacomo Puccini’s Crisantemi, (Chrysanthemums), an early string quartet written in response to the 1890 death of the Duke of Savoy. They rendered the tragic piece with mournful poignancy. Periodic rocking intervals in the violin and viola lines were played steadily and with subtlety, exquisitely filling out the texture. Aronson provided a solid foundation. She used a tasteful amount of vibrato to cultivate a melancholy tension, the trembling evoking a crying voice covered by layers of sound.

The other highlight of the afternoon was Philip Glass’ Third String Quartet, “Mishima,” from which Route 9 performed the fifth and sixth movements. The fifth, “Blood Oath,” was made dynamic by a slow crescendo. This shift was extremely well-controlled, like a volume dial raised one minuscule click at a time, all instruments building while maintaining balance with each other. As the dial reached its highest setting, the music abruptly ended without any resolution, creating anticipation for the second movement, “Mishima/Closing.” While the players achieved a lovely seamlessness within the new repetitive phrases, this closing part was less satisfying than the first, lacking rich dynamic changes.

In the exact middle of the program was Dvořák’s “American” Quartet, Op. 96. Bateman began with the melody and perfectly captured its folksiness, making me wish that she’d been bolder elsewhere so that her parts didn’t so frequently get lost. Throughout the musicians played with a steady power that propelled the piece forward.

Route 9 defines its repertoire as “classical and beyond,” and sure enough, the concert opened and closed with pieces that are untraditional in the chamber music repertoire. To begin, the ensemble played Argentine composer Ástor Piazzolla’s celebrated Libertango, capturing its soulful, tango spirit. The afternoon ended with a provocative adaptation of Brubeck’s Blue Rondo à la Turk. The musicians at first had difficulty maintaining a steady beat within the complicated rhythms, so that the catchy groove was evasive. But this improved dramatically as they continued. The strongest parts were the call-and-response sections in the middle of the piece between the cello and other instruments, when all musicians achieved perfectly-timed swells paired with dramatic volume increases.

Blue Rondo showcased many: It allowed the lively confidence of Painter’s playing to shine through, and gave Aronson a walking bass line, which she performed with verve. Most impressively, the arrangement featured a jazzy solo for the first violin, which Jansen played excellently. She fearlessly conquered the speedy scales and added vitality and sass. From these features to the moments of coordinated group power, Route 9 provided audience members with splendid music to echo in our heads as we greet 2015.