in: Reviews

November 17, 2008

The Pacifica Quartet takes on Beethoven, Carter, and Crumb

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This fall, the Longy School of Music, the New England Conservatory, and many other Boston area music schools are organizing a series of concerts to celebrate Elliott Carter’s upcoming 100th birthday. On November 13, one of these concerts took place at the Longy School of Music, where Nadia Boulanger was based when she came here during World War II. Carter had studied with her at the Conservatoire de Paris in the 1930s.

The concert featured Longy’s ensemble-in-residence, the Pacifica String Quartet. The young members were welcomed warmly by Longy School president Karen L. Zorn, who surprised the audience at Pickman Hall with the announcement that the Quartet had just been named Musical America‘s new “Ensemble of the Year.”

Renowned for their bold programming, the Pacifica Quartet juxtaposed three gigantic works on Thursday evening: Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15, op. 132, Elliot Carter’s String Quartet No.3 and George Crumb’s Black Angels. It is an unusual and extraordinary decision to string together such compositions, each of which taken for itself could have served as the climax for an entire program. Every one of these works is a milestone of musical expressivity and at the same time a rare example of intellectual achievement. Their highly complex musical language requires an immensely refined vocabulary for the expression of minute nuances that reach beyond the primary colors of the musical spectrum. The performers’ sensitive and creative engagement with the possibilities of this spectrum is an indicator of their musical maturity as well as their caliber. Judging from the audience’s reaction after the concert, the Pacifica String Quartet has to be regarded as definitely belonging to the group of the higher caliber musicians.

One of the biggest challenges for every musician is the mix of excitement and nervousness that marks the beginning of a concert. For the Pacifica Quartet this challenge must have been even greater, since they began their program with Beethoven’s enormous Quartet op. 132 in A-minor. One of the late works of Beethoven, this quartet contains an entire musical world, ranging from the most intimate sounds, near silence, to the most forceful passages of pure fury. In general, the Pacifica Quartet delivered a convincing performance. However, in those instances when nervousness won over excitement, the moments of sudden changes and the transitional passages that are so crucial for Beethoven’s music lost their magical power. But the quartet’s strong backbone, Mr. Brandon Vamos, reacted early enough, like an experienced concert master, to prevent the falling apart of the skeleton, and thereby contributed substantially to the strong impression that the performance made in the end.

During the first intermission the stage was changed from the traditional quartet setup to the double-duo setup for Carter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Quartet No. 3. Once the quartet members came back on stage all nervousness and insecurity was gone. The quartet’s long-term engagement with contemporary music in general and with Carter’s music in particular showed in their colorful interpretation of the piece. The duality in the characters of the two opposing duos, such as symphonic vs. monophonic, fiery virtuosity vs. lyricism, was artfully demonstrated in the quartet’s refined performance.

George Crumb’s Black Angels for amplified string quartet constituted the culminating moment of the performance. Probably one of the most influential compositions for string quartet in the 20th century, Crumb’s music describes the apocalyptical atmosphere of the Vietnam War. To depict this eerie atmosphere Crumb’s score calls for unconventional instruments and playing techniques, i. e. glass harmonicas and gongs that should be played with the bow. These unorthodox playing techniques require a lot of multi-tasking skills and rehearsing, but the members of the Pacifica demonstrated the complex course of motions with ease. The balance of electronics was also delicately tailored to Pickman Hall. The audience’s standing ovations at the end of the piece proved that the Pacifica Quartet has emerged as the rising star of the North American quartet scene.

Seda Röder, a young concert pianist from Istanbul, is currently a piano instructor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a teaching assistant and fellow at Harvard University.

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