Pacifica Quartet review: Four is enough

Despite the unexpected absence of an extra cellist, quartet reaches highest level of performance

by TERRY ROSS

It was a dark and stormy night.

But that didn’t keep an avid crowd from filling Lincoln Hall auditorium at Portland State University on Monday, January 9, even though the featured guest artist had phoned in sick and wouldn’t be appearing in this Friends of Chamber Music concert. Because this audience knew.

They knew that the Pacifica Quartet, with or without an extra cellist, is the real thing, a truly first-class — in fact top-of-the-line — string quartet, worthy of mention in the same sentence as the Emerson, Takacs, Tokyo, Borodin and even the classic Guarneri and Juilliard.

Pacifica Quartet triumphed at Friends of Chamber Music. Photo: John Green.

Watching and listening to the Pacifica do their impeccable thing with such remarkable individual and group artistry, one couldn’t help thinking of the rewards and disappointments of string quartet membership. All established string players, with the exception, perhaps, of violists (because of the paucity of soloistic opportunities), begin and continue their musical education in the same spirit as Anne-Sophie Mutter, Pinchas Zukerman, and Yo-Yo Ma began theirs: they aim for the stars. Some make it and become headliners, playing alone in front of orchestras, plumbing the concerto repertoire. Others determine along the line that either they don’t have the chops for the big time or they wouldn’t like the life of the soloist if they did. If they want to continue to play, they will have to play chamber music.

But this is no hardship. The world of chamber music for string players is incomparably more varied and rich than the solo repertoire. There are duos, trios, quintets, septets, sinfonias concertante, and the queen of them all, the string quartet. Here stretches an enormous number of magnificent works, from the baroque period to the present. Tackling this music allows — requires — the participant to be not only a player but also a conductor, setting the pace, the volume, the phrasing. Chamber music, with its necessity for the closest communication among its practitioners, is the most intimate form of classical music. Which is why so many famous string soloists do as much chamber music as they can, both professionally and at home, for fun and musical nourishment.

In addition, chamber music, and especially string quartet music, with its longstanding ensembles, achieves the highest level of performance. Symphony orchestras typically rehearse very little, just enough to do a presentable performance. They can’t afford to do more. The best string quartets, however, who are paid only when they perform, rehearse much more often, well beyond the standard of a merely “presentable” performance, aspiring always to the best they can do. If their members are extremely talented and sensitive individuals, they may reach the level of the Pacifica Quartet.

The Pacifica — Simin Ganatra, first violin; Sibbi Bernhardsson, second violin; Masumi Per Rostad, viola; Brandon Vamos, cello — began their revised program with one of Giacomo Puccini’s extremely rare non-operatic pieces, Crisantemi, a string quartet movement he claimed to have written in one night to honor Prince Amadeo, a member of the Italian royal family. They rendered this lovely six-minute bagatelle more beautifully than any of the available recordings. Their beauty and homogeneity of tone was perfect for the sighing motifs of Puccini’s tribute. The softness of all four instruments was impeccable.

Then it was on to Beethoven’s early quartet, Op. 18, No. 6, which calls for a much wider repertoire of gestures and techniques. And again the Pacifica played as if they were one person with eight arms and hands. Especially superb was the third-movement Scherzo (Allegro), dispatched with verve, and the beginning of the last movement’s La Malinconia (“melancholy”), beautifully slow and soft to begin, and quick to end in an Allegretto quasi Allegro, in which first violinist Ganatra expertly played her only extremely fast notes of the entire concert.

After the intermission, the Pacifica returned for Maurice Ravel’s only venture into string quartet territory, the Quartet in F Major. Although often paired with or compared to Claude Debussy’s only string quartet, written ten years earlier in 1893, there is little to connect the two, except that both use modal harmonies and both have four movements, the third one slow. Ravel’s piece, written as an entry for the Rome Prize (which he didn’t win), is straightforward where Debussy’s is dreamy, classical in its emotional language where Debussy’s defines impressionism and symbolism. Debussy himself advised Ravel to “not touch a single note you have written in your Quartet.”

Here the Pacifica added strength to strength. In a version slightly slower than other quartets’ at 31 minutes, they sailed through the second movement pizzicato opening as easily as they navigated the changes in time signature of the fourth-movement Vif et agité from five to three. Second fiddler Mr. Bernhardsson was outstanding in timing his playing perfectly with Ms. Ganatra, even when he was called on to aggressively strum whole chords on his instrument. Violist Per Rostad was similarly attentive to Ms. Ganatra’s gestures, and his tone was smooth and noble. Mr. Vamos’s cello playing was a treat for the eyes and the ears. Swaying from side to side and often not looking at his music, he kept his gaze on Ms. Ganatra, to whom he is married. And she embodied the music, whether fast or slow, soft or loud, with freely emotional facial expressions, a good deal of abrupt shifting in her chair, and the frequent raising of one foot or the other from the floor.

Such performances not only beggar description, they defy criticism. The sold-out audience knew it and treated the Pacifica to multiple curtain calls and a rousing standing ovation. Three cheers to Friends of Chamber Music’s executive director Pat Zagelow for so often bringing the best to Portland, even in the worst of weather.

Recommended recordings

Giacomo Puccini, Crisantemi
• Doric String Quartet (YouTube).

Ludwig van Beethoven, Quartet No. 6 in B-flat Major, Op. 18
• Tokyo Quartet, String Quartets, Op 18 (Harmoni1 Mundi, 2008).

Maurice Ravel, Quartet in F Major
• Emerson String Quartet (Deutsche Grammophon 445-509, 1984.

Terry Ross is a Portland freelance journalist and the director of The Classical Club, through which he offers classical music appreciation sessions. He can be reached at classicalclub@comcast.net.

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One Response.

  1. Amelia Hard says:

    Thank you for this beautifully written, spot-on review! The Ravel is a favorite of mine and my husband’s, and we’ve never heard it played better, either live or on recordings. It always feels like an honor and a personal gift to hear the Pacifica perform. And we say “Amen!” to your praise of Pat Zagelow and FOCM for bringing such treasures to Portland.

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