Pacifica Quartet review: Love beyond the comfort zone

Favorite visiting ensemble dishes drama, storm and stress... Portland fans eat it up.

by JEFF WINSLOW

Just before the Pacifica Quartet played an encore at their concert the second Monday in December, violinist Sibbi Bernhardsson told the packed Lincoln Performance Hall audience at Portland State University how much the Bloomington, Indiana-based group loved coming to Portland.

“We love you too!” a forthright masculine voice unexpectedly answered out of the darkness, and applause underscored the sentiment. It was just one of many expressions of enthusiasm for the group’s committed and gripping Friends of Chamber Music performance of an unusually multi-cultural program of string quartets by Charles Ives, György Ligeti and Felix Mendelssohn.

Pacifica Quartet performed at Portland State University's Lincoln Hall. Photo: John Green

Pacifica Quartet performed at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall. Photo: John Green

Multi-cultural for Western classical music, that is: American and Eastern European regionalism along with Mendelssohn’s work from the very heart of the canon. Yet a common theme bound the three works together. In contrast to the love-fest between the Pacifica and their audience, all three were written under various forms of oppression that forced the composers out of their comfort zones.

The stress was probably least for Ives, writing his first extended work during relatively happy student days at Yale in the last few years of the 19th century. His main teacher, Horatio Parker, was a composer of the old 19th century Germanic school and didn’t think much of Ives’s fascination with American vernacular tunes – the pop music of the day. He thought even less of his student including them in his first string quartet, but he didn’t insist that Ives take them out. Maybe he was mollified by the opening movement, which seems put together largely from fluent fugue and four-part harmony exercises. The result is an affable if sometimes over-earnest romp through an assemblage of decorous and down-home sounds, tricked out here and there with the barest foretaste of the composer’s later riotous soundscapes, mostly in passages that change keys vertiginously as if written by a hallucinating Haydn. The Pacifica’s sweet, yet unabashed and high-spirited performance matched the work well and showcased it in the best possible light. For example, one doesn’t expect a student composer to have the long-range planning skills to bring off a really dramatic moment, but the group’s sensitive overall shaping brought out several such delights.

Fearless Exploration

Though Ligeti was also, like Ives, still young and little known when wrote his first string quartet, his student days at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest were behind him. What he still studied with fascination were the string quartets of Béla Bartók. With Hungary behind the Iron Curtain in the early 1950s, broadcasts and performances of much of the nation’s greatest composer’s music were forbidden. Instead, Ligeti learned these quartets just from the printed scores, in such depth and meticulous detail that he later claimed that he could have written “Bartók’s seventh, eighth, and even twelfth quartets.” He knew his own first quartet, a further exploration of the sound world of Bartók’s banned third and fourth Quartets titled Métamorphoses nocturnes, would not be performed under such conditions. But he persevered anyway, possibly with some of the same determination that helped get him through internment in a forced labor camp during World War II.

We can be glad he persevered. Bartók’s influence was apparent throughout, but in the Pacifica’s versatile and agile hands we heard the restless and fearless exploration of every aspect of sound that would eventually propel Ligeti into the top ranks of 20th century composers. Heard one way, the entire work is narrowly focused on rearrangement of a basic group of four adjacent pitches. But surrounding these changes – these metamorphoses – is great freedom of detail, in figuration, in texture, and in every way of playing string instruments then current. And unlike the dominant trend in European composition at the time, these details don’t seem to be abstrusely derived from the basic pitch group, but instead evoke a wide variety of imagery through gestures that, though they sometimes involve lots of notes, are easily grasped by the ear. The work gives the impression of being much less subtle than its Bartókian models, and yet the effects never pall. It calls for a much wider range of volume and speed than anything else on the program, and I suspect it was by far the most difficult. Yet the group actually seemed to enjoy the adventure. They certainly got me to enjoy it, and I even heard appreciative comments nearby from a few folks who, while reading the program notes before the concert, seemed inclined to laugh the composer off.

When Mendelssohn wrote his F minor string quartet, op. 80, he was, unlike Ives and Ligeti, near the end of his career. But he could hardly have guessed he would be felled at age 38, in 1847, by a series of strokes only two months after completing the work. What was severely oppressing him at the time was the equally premature death of his beloved older sister Fanny in May of that year. He even subtitled the quartet “Requiem for Fanny.”

Mendelssohn is known for his fecund production of superbly crafted music, but his music seemed to shy away from digging deep within himself for inspiration, particularly into any areas of struggle or anguish. Fanny’s death blew away that reserve. The quartet opens with worrying violins above obsessively scratched-out open fifths, the next phrase begins with a high cry of anguish, and things don’t let up until the first movement ends – not even for contrasting themes, which traditionally are relatively placid but here are propelled by gnawing rhythmic patterns. Nor is there relief in the next movement, a driving “scherzo” that begins with an insistently rising phrase evocative of ever-intensifying sobs. We hear this phrase many times before the movement finally evaporates into bleak emptiness.

Even in the calm slow movement, where the composer seems to share a store of affectionate memories of his sister with us, phrase after phrase is prefaced with a sighing, descending four-note scale. The finale just throws us back to a world of worry, with those obsessive fifths drilling away again. There is no sense of consolation or of triumph over death. The entire work belongs to the anger stage of grief.

In the Pacifica’s hands, all this tumult poured out passionately, yet at the same time incisively and without sloppiness. They seemed to be exquisitely aware of just how far outside of Mendelssohn’s comfort zone the work is, and highlighted each stretch and strangeness with just the right dramatic force. The adrenalin level remained high from first to last, finding release only in the final thunderous outburst of applause from the audience.

Even the group’s encore was conceived by a fish somewhat out of water. Antonin Dvořák wrote his twelfth or “American” Quartet while on vacation in the Czech community of Spillville, Iowa in the summer of 1893. Though surrounded by familiar language, the composer was far from his native land, directing the National Conservatory in New York at the time. He described the quartet as a “simple” work, but even so, the Pacifica infused its tuneful and somewhat melancholy slow movement with a quiet energy that kept us riveted even as it let us down gently from the storm and stress of the Mendelssohn. It was just one more reason why we do love the Pacifica Quartet here in Portland.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer and pianist, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers.

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