Book Buzz: The Ensemble

The Ensemble by Aja Gabel

If you need a little extra inspiration before shelling out for tickets to one or more of the many performances taking place at the Bellingham Festival of Music next month, check out a copy of Aja Gabel’s The Ensemble from your nearest public library.

The Bellingham Festival of Music is celebrating its 25th year during its Silver Anniversary Season June 30-July 20, and The Ensemble, with its warm, sensitive portrayal of up-and-coming chamber musicians, puts a human face on the performers behind classical music performances.

It’s the 1990s at a prestigious conservatory in San Francisco, and four top students have agreed to forgo solo careers in favor of forming a string quartet. Jana is a driven, motivated first violin. She recently realized that she’s at her most engaged and creative when playing with others. Henry is a childhood viola prodigy, deeply loyal to his friend Jana. Brit, the second violin, is sweet, sad and sympathetic. She fears that she wasted her time attending “regular college” instead of a music school. Finally, there’s Daniel, the cellist, nearly 30 and older than the others. Daniel has been diligently working and waiting for his big break. This quartet may be the answer to his prayers.

The Ensemble follows their chamber group, the Van Ness Quartet, as they head to music competitions and get their first taste of success as well as some failures. Jana will do anything to achieve her goals. Henry, objectively the most talented, may be seduced into a solo career. Daniel is angry and bitter, hard on himself and the women who love him. Brit, an orphan, is beautiful, quiet and steadfast. They are friends, they are lovers, and they are intense, committed musicians.

As they age and mature and their talents grow and refine, the musicians’ relationships with one another evolve as well. It’s not all happiness and light, as they struggle with their ambition, loneliness, tendonitis and jealousy. But their close working partnership ultimately binds them together into something more than a quartet—a family of sorts, connected by their passion for the music and the way that in playing together they create beautiful art.

Even if you’re not a musician, you’ll find yourself cueing up your Pandora list of classical selections to accompany you while you read. The author cleverly provides a selection of chamber music pieces at the beginning of each of the four parts of the novel to make it even easier for to you create a multi-sensory experience.

This book is more about feelings and friendships than plot, so read this if you enjoy character-driven stories or if you want to know more about the orchestral world from a behind-the-scenes perspective.  Gabel is herself a cellist and clearly has a deep understanding and appreciation for this milieu.

The Ensemble never hits a wrong note. Just like a talented, well-rehearsed quartet, this work of fiction is lyrical, moving and honest.

Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System.

(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, June 13, 2018.)