in: Reviews

March 29, 2009

Pacifica Quartet Shines in City That Fosters Chamber Music

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The Boston area is paradise for chamber music lovers. But even in this milieu, the Pacifica String Quartet shines. Hearing and seeing them in a small hall like Longy’s, as we did on March 26, is a special treat. It is not just the years of practice together, the deep understanding of the music, the perfect intonation, the synchronized phrasing and vibrato – many great string quartets do this. It is communication, both with us and with each other, that gives them their power. You don’t just listen to one of their performances. Through their faces, their body movements, and especially their eyes you become a part it.  They give their music only brief glances, while intensely watching each other. Watching them gives insight into the music, and into the concentration and skill that goes into seamless and effortless ensemble. This is the art – or rather, the heart – of chamber music. The art can be taught (www.heartofchambermusic.com).  In master classes by the Pacifica, after just an hour of watchful suggestions and demonstrations, there is dramatic improvement in what is felt and not necessarily heard.

For this concert, Pacifica Quartet members Simin Ganatra and Sibbi Bernhardssohn, violins, Brandon Vamos, ‘cello, and Masumi Per Rostad, viola, were joined by guest violist Roger Tapping.

The music in the concert was all about melody. The concert started with Mendelssohn’s Capriccio in E minor, op. 81, composed near the end of his life.  It begins with an andante tune in the first violin, over a slow bass line and quiet strings. Contemplative, beautiful. Both Mendelssohn and Dvorak write great melodies! Variations on the tune then move through the other instruments, the Pacifica pulling at the heartstrings of it. A moment of stasis is reached, and suddenly the first violin launches into a rollicking, virtuoso fugue. The whole piece is six-and-a-half minutes of delight.

Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 4 in E minor, op. 44, No. 2,  is possibly one of the most beautiful he wrote. In the first movement, the first violin starts the melody, accompanied by the other strings, and the music evolves into a passionate allegro of variations on the theme. The second movement is fast and virtuoso, a dancing scherzo. The andante movement is the romantic heart of the piece. It starts with another fabulous melody over a slow bass line and arpeggios in the viola – resembling the beginning of the capriccio, heard earlier. Once again, the Pacifica made the most of it with their moving dynamics and phrasing. The fourth movement, although as fast and virtuoso as the second, ties together themes from the other movements through phrases shared among the instruments.

The Dvorak String Quintet in E flat major, opus 97, was written while the composer was in the Czech community at Spillsville, Iowa, just after completing the “New World” Symphony. The quintet is full of American melodies and rhythms. The first movement of the quintet starts quietly and builds into phrases reminiscent of this well known, beloved symphony. The second movement is a heal-kicking hoedown. The third, starting with a breathtaking melody in Per Rostad’s viola, elaborates into a theme and variations on what sounds like an early American hymn. With guest violist Tapping’s great help, the Pacifica wove exceptional beauty into the movement. The last movement starts with a lively dance in American style, which is interrupted by a pentatonic American Indian melody, complete with Indian drums. The two dance styles then alternate and combine to a rousing finish. Tapping fit into the group as if he had been rehearsing with them for years. Watching his eyes watch the others, particularly Per Rostad, was a delight.  I asked Tapping how he could possibly play as one with the Pacifica with so little rehearsal, and he responded that there is a spirit and a way of communicating that must be common to great string quartets. Years of playing with the Takacs Quartet made it easy to know how to work with the Pacifica. His performance, as with all the performances that night, was brilliantly part of the whole.

David Griesinger is a Harvard-trained physicist who is eminent in the field of sound and music. His website is here.

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