October 9 Pacifica Quartet


Photo Credit: Anthony Parmelee

Photo Credit: Anthony Parmelee

Pacifica Quartet: Who could ask for anything more?

From thoughtful musicianship and warmth of tone to razor-sharp ensemble execution, Pacifica appears to have it all

By David Abrams

There are only so many ways a critic can say “wow!”

The Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music’s 2010-2011 season-opening concert Saturday evening, featuring a superlative performance by the Pacifica Quartet, underscores the inadequacy of words when trying to describe a musical tour de force. But this much I can say: Pacifica’s meaningful musical delivery and flawless ensemble execution throughout Saturday’s program provided a credible model for a persuasive chamber music experience ― and a compelling affirmation of the code of excellence set by SFCM over the course of the past 60 seasons. The bar has now been raised several notches.

Certainly, there is no shortage of first-rate professional string quartets nowadays, and SFCM has brought the best of these ensembles to Syracuse. Still, I would be hard-pressed to recall a performance that so thoroughly met all my expectations as did yesterday’s three-work program comprising quartets of Schumann, Shostakovich and Beethoven. Judging from the enthusiastic (and uncharacteristically vocal) response of the sophisticated SFCM audience, I was not alone.

Pacifica’s darkly timbred and homogeneous blend of tone was at once evident from the Andante espressivo introduction to Schumann’s Quartet in A Minor, which opened the program.

I continue to grow weary of first violinists whose bright sounds dominate the four-part texture of the quartet ― drawing the listener’s attention to the sound of the violin at the expense of the other players. This practice may be appropriate for early Haydn quartets but not for later works, or contrapuntal sections commonly found in the development sections of Sonata forms that typically govern opening movements. In contrast, Pacifica’s first violinist, Simin Ganatra, maintains a dark and muted tone that weaves in and out of the four-voice texture without buoying to the top. The result is a perfect blend of sound that directs the listener’s attention to the tutti ensemble: The melody’s still there, mind you ― it’s just not screaming at you.

The Pacifica captured the gentle touch and relaxed ambiance of Schumann’s opening movement without sacrificing the rhythmic accents and syncopations that punctuate it. There was also some nice ensemble interplay between the viola (Masumi Per Rostad) and cello (Brandon Vamos) as they passed the triplet figures between them.

After a fiery scherzo, the quartet immersed themselves thoroughly in the poignant Adagio movement, achieving great intimacy of phrasing and expression. Unfortunately, Ganatra’s chair began squeaking ― softly but audibly ― as she rocked back and forth in sync with Schumann’s tender melodic lines (the rogue chair was replaced). The spirited final movement (Presto) danced and frolicked to the folk-like strains of Schumann’s fancy (lots of open strings here), with seamless passing of the rapid 16th-note figures from player-to-player.

Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 3, one of the composer’s favorites among his 15 string quartets, was written in 1946 as he was growing increasingly despondent over the Soviet regime’s iron-grip stranglehold on his artistic growth (Stalin’s policy of Soviet realism against Western formalism). As Shostakovich did the following year in his Violin Concerto, the composer channels his deep frustration (and ultimate resignation) over Stalin in a bipolar succession of deeply depressed writing and highly amphetamined outbursts.

The Quartet No. 3, with its wide mood swings (from grotesque to gripping) and incessant bouncing from theme to theme without pause for development, is not what you’d call easy listening. It is, to be sure, an esoteric journey through the darkest recesses of the composer’s troubled mind and Shostakovich seemed perfectly content to leave the listener behind. The challenge in this work is to draw the listener into the performance experience, and when the four players could be seen deeply absorbed within the music this immersion became contagious. By the gloomy Adagio movement, a poignant lament, one could all but see the tears streaming down Shostakovichs’s face. In the wildly caffeinated finale it was the composers sweat, and not tears, that could be seen streaming down his face.

The SFCM crowd appeared breathless throughout most of this lengthy work, and not a peep could be heard in the auditorium during the ethereal ending ― a sustained, ultra-soft major triad sounding in the second violin, viola and cello, over which the first violin sings a muted altissimo harmonic that slowly melts away into the ether. After a lengthy pause for reflection, the audience snapped out of it and applauded loudly, with prolonged shouts of approval.

Following intermission, the program concluded with a thoroughly enjoyable and adept performance of an old but treasured warhorse, Beethoven’s Quartet in C Major (Razumovsky), Op. 59 No. 3.

Typical of Pacifica’s synergistic ensemble-work, entrances in the first movement introduction (Andante con moto) were perfectly in sync. It’s a pleasure to observe the subtle ways Ganatra communicates with the other players ― at times with a slight nod of the head, at other times a raise of the brow. The alert playing in this movement’s sprightly Allegro that followed was brisk and energetic, with well-executed dotted-rhythmic figures that breathed anima into Beethoven’s motivic-driven phrases.

There’s always been a special place in my heart for the lovely second-movement Andante con moto, and Pacifica’s tender and thoughtful delivery of the lyrical passages and well-shaped phrases created a warmth of feeling that was truly sublime. Especially impressive was Vamos’s opening 8-note pizzicato cello passage, which although sounding the same pitch appeared to change timbre with each new pluck of the string. The ensemble’s warm blend of sound made for some heavenly listening in the gentle, Mozartean Menuetto (third) movement, as well.

The finale, an exciting Russian dance that begins as a fugue, gave the listener ample opportunity to watch and hear Pacifica pass the quickly moving motivic fragments gracefully to and from one-another. I marveled at the incredible tension built by Pacifica during the movement’s development section  where Beethoven chops his themes into small pieces and tosses them among the instrumentalists like vegetables through a food processor. Okay, that was a bizarre metaphor. During the movement’s climax, when all four players were loudly and wildly bowing the rapid 16th-note figures, I wondered whether spontaneous combustion would ignite the stage and end the performance prematurely.

That didn’t happen, of course ― but there’s little doubt that the performance ended in a blaze of glory.

Details Box:
What: The Pacifica Quartet, sponsored by Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music
Where: Lincoln Middle School, 1613 James Street, Syracuse
When: October 9, 2010, 8 p.m.
Time: 2 hours
Information: call (315) 446-3424
Ticket prices: Regular $25, Senior $15, Student $10
Next: Walden Chamber Players, Nov. 13, 8 p.m