in: Reviews

September 1, 2014

Pacifica More Challenging Than Pacific

by

Pacifica Quartet (file photo)

Pacifica Quartet (file photo)

The Maverick Concerts season in Woodstock still has one weekend to go, but the Sunday  concert by the Pacifica Quartet was in a meaningful way a season finale. Next Saturday’s concert is a folk music program by Happy Traum and Friends (one of whom is crossover artist David Amram), and Sunday afternoon brings a substantial program by the American String Quartet, a Friends of the Maverick benefit to which reviewers are understandably not invited. At any rate, the Pacifica program was one of the most substantial of the summer, including the last string quartets of three major composers, a satisfying conclusion to the season.

The Pacifica Quartet has made a specialty out of the works of Elliot Carter and worked with the composer on its interpretations. It opened the concert with “Two Fragments for String Quartet,” works written separately in 1994 and 1999, when the composer was 96 and 101 years old. Each lasts about four minutes. They are not as demanding as some of Carter’s works. The first, while far from tonal, is simple, mostly harmonics and sound effects. The second presents small events against a quiet background. It’s a safe presumption that the performances were excellent, and they were greeted with surprisingly enthusiastic applause by the large audience.

Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 80, may be unique among that composer’s works. The normally light-hearted composer was devastated by the sudden death of his sister Fanny. He wrote this quartet, his last composition, during the six months between her death and his own. Its lighter moments seem to depict happy musical memories of Fanny, who was also a gifted composer. The overall mood of the work is deeply tragic, almost Schubertian, and it is consistently affecting music, one of Mendelssohn’s greatest works. The performance built well and never overdid the tragedy, with the Adagio particularly touching. There were times when the first violin was insufficiently prominent, the important melody almost buried in the texture, but they were fairly brief.

The second half of the program began with Carter’s last completed full scale String Quartet, No. 5, composed in 1995. Second violinist Sibbi Bernhardsson gave the audience a useful and gratifyingly concise introduction to the piece, which is in 12 brief sections lasting about 18 minutes. The piece has many Webernian moments, terse if not downright fragmentary, along with some apparent chaos which I have finally learned to let myself experience as chaos and not try to “figure out.” Again, the performance was greeted with enthusiastic applause.

During Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 16, in F, Op. 135, I felt some carryover of the performing style from the Carter. This was not a bad thing. This Beethoven is on the surface a return to his earlier style, but it is full of radical ideas and some of the kinds of compression we heard in Carter. I thought there was one miscalculation in this performance. The second movement Vivace was played too fast for rhythmic clarity, and even players as adept as these could not bring out some of the passages at the speed they chose. I think I know what they were aiming at but I also think the wildness would be better conveyed if we could hear Beethoven’s rhythms clearly. Otherwise this was a remarkable performance, particularly in the unearthly beauty of the third movement’s interpretation. And as far as the second movement goes, I’d rather hear adventure, even if not completely successful, than complacency.

Four decades ago, when I began to attend Maverick Concerts, people I knew told me the series was probably doomed to eventual extinction. Look at all of these grey heads, they said. When these people die the audience will be gone. Here we are wrapping up the 99th season and the audiences are still there. Obviously we have a new crop of grey heads, including mine. But with that thought in mind I was surveying the audience for this concert and found a gratifying number of heads with dark hair.

Leslie Gerber, who lives in Woodstock, New York, has been reviewing professionally since 1966, for such venues as Performance Today, Fanfare, and Amazon.com. He also publishes the Parnassus Records label.

4 Comments

  1. Carter was born in 1908, so if the composition dates are correct, the ages are not: they should be
    86 and 91 respectively.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — September 3, 2014 at 12:55 pm

  2. Got me! I don’t remember whether the bad math was mine or the Quartet’s but probably mine. Thanks for the correction.

    Comment by Leslie Gerber — September 3, 2014 at 3:27 pm

  3. Gotta love cocksure pickiness. Carter arrived at the end of his birth year, December, so if the Frags were written, oh, in the spring or summer or even fall of their birth years, well, lemme get out my calculator and my month fingers ….

    Or, gosh, I could google it:

    ‘Fragment for string quartet was composed on August 30, 1994 in Southbury, Connecticut in memory of my good friend and colleague, David Huntley. This short work uses harmonics for the strings throughout, which, I hope, give a poignant character to my musical message. It had its premiere by the Kronos Quartet in New York at a concert dedicated to the memory of David on October 13, 1994.’

    Those who give a darn can do the same for Fragment II.

    Comment by David Moran — September 3, 2014 at 6:19 pm

  4. Thanks Leslie, for another of your reviews — it was indeed an exciting season, much to learn from and also much to rejoice in as well.

    Comment by Alexander Platt — September 4, 2014 at 11:19 pm

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