Pacifica Quartet returns to Syracuse, proves once again it is second to none
The Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music engaged the best of the best for its 2015-16 season opener
The Pacifica Quartet returned to Central New York Saturday to open to the Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music’s 2015-16 season, and did so with the kind of program, playing and execution that has defined SFCM over the course of its 66-year history.
I wasn’t around when Louis Krasner founded SFCM in 1949, but I’ve been attending its concerts the past 39 seasons. During that span I’ve heard a number of tours de force efforts from top-notch string quartets in their glorious primes — including Guarneri, Takács and Tokyo. What makes Pacifica so unique is that every Syracuse appearance of the ensemble seems to culminate in a tour de force. Judging from its most recent appearance, an impressive program of Mozart, Mendelssohn and Shostakovich, the streak continues.
First-rate chamber ensembles have several things in common: blend of tone that maintains its warmth and color across the gamut of dynamic contrasts; near-perfect technical execution; impeccable intonation; meaningful phrasing delivered with a sense of spontaneity; and a reliable first violinist with a solid command of the upper register. Pacifica has it all.
Command of pitch was evident in the very opening measure of Mozart’s Quartet in F Major, K.590 during the ascending unison tonic chord and rapid scalewise passage that followed. Ensemble was tight throughout this spunky movement, with the seasoned quartet passing the five-note motif to and from one another like a well-oiled machine. Blend of tone in the chorale that opens the lyrical second movement Andante was balanced and sonorous — a mark of an experienced and longstanding ensemble.
Pacifica offers much for the eyes as well as the ears. I love to watch first violinist Simin Ganatra as she performs. She shaped her phrases in this Andante movement like a master sculptor molding clay into something sensuously exquisite, and her caressing facial expressions afforded the listener a window into the unfolding creative process.
Tempos were good throughout the four-movement work — especially the fourth movement Allegro finale, which the ensemble had taken at a more relaxed Moderato tempo. The sober tempo, however, did not compromise the level of energy and excitement in this movement, especially with respect to the relentless 16th-note figures during the development section, where the players generated lots of power and energy.
Coming on the heels of Mozart’s buoyant F Major Quartet, the depressing Shostakovich String Quartet no.13 (op. 138) that followed seemed an emotional non sequitur.
If pressed to describe the Shostakovich Quartet in only two words, I’d choose “utter despair.” The celebrated Soviet composer worked on this somber quartet between hospital stays in 1969-70, all the while growing increasingly obsessive over thoughts of death.
This is a strikingly depressing work from a deeply troubled composer. And Shostakovich’s pain and suffering resonates with the listener throughout the 20-minute work. So despondent is this aural journey, few of the contemporary techniques used here (including hitting the bow percussively against the back of the instruments) appear out of place. Even the exaggerated, screeching crescendo on the final note (a high B-flat five leger lines above the staff played by the two violins and viola) sounded strangely idiomatic to the prevalent despondency of mood.
As may be expected, the String Quartet no.13 presents a challenging listening experience. The writing here is virtually unrecognizable from what many have come to expect from Shostakovich, with sonorities stacked with harsh dissonances and generated in part from tone rows. Thankfully, an informative and engaging talk from the stage by Sibbi Bernhardsson helped prepare the audience for the abstruse dirge that was to follow.
Since Shostakovich dedicated this Quartet to the then-recently retired violist of the Beethoven Quartet (Vadim Borisovsky), Pacifica’s Masumi Per Rostad was never far from the spotlight. The Japanese-Norwegian violist was especially impressive unwinding his mournful solo lament in the opening measures, delivered with his customary rich alto tone. Rostad’s hauntingly beautiful concluding statement of this theme at the very end of the work, perched high in the treble register, was breathtaking.
Whether the crowd connected with this work is another matter. Still, it was clear from the hearty applause that followed that Pacifica’s dedication to this work did not go unappreciated. Few ensembles on the circuit today have dug into this work as deeply as Pacifica — whose impressive 8-CD set of recordings of the complete quartets of Shostakovich is available on the Cedille Records label.
The good playing continued in the final work on the program, Mendelssohn’s Quartet in E Minor, op.44 no.2 (1837), an enchanting work written while the composer was on his honeymoon.
The passion and nostalgic flavors of the opening movement presage the beloved Violin Concerto (in the same key) composed some seven years later, and is every bit as engaging. Pacifica’s richly homogeneous sound was captivating, and the ensemble’s sensitive delivery captured the intensity and spirit of Mendelssohn’s heartfelt writing.
The second movement Scherzo that followed was taken at breakneck tempo, with bows crossing the strings with such dizzying speed I imagined I was watching four scouts preparing to kindle a fire by friction. The playing was nevertheless so tight and alert it seemed as if a more relaxed tempo could not possibly have captured this degree of power and energy.
Pacifica returned to the passion and sturm und drang of the opening movement in the Presto agitato finale — setting up a coda of bravura that brought the largely aging crowd to its feet, howling like teenagers at a rock concert. The players capitulated at last to the non-stop applause, returning to the stage for an encore: The Four for Tango by Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla.
Let’s hope the Pacifica Quartet returns to Syracuse for many dances to come.
What: Pacifica Quartet, sponsored by Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music
Where: H.W. Smith School Auditorium, 1130 Salt Springs Rd. Syracuse
When: Sep. 19, 2015
Ticket prices: Regular: $25; Seniors: $20; Under 30: $15; Full-time students: free
Next SFCM concert: ATOS Trio, 7:30 p.m. Sat. Oct. 17