Brandon Vamos

Pacifica Quartet: new members, new spirit

The renowned ensemble’s founders discuss replacing departed members, new collaborations, and more

by ALICE HARDESTY

After performing for 22 years, and with no member changes in the last 17, the Pacifica Quartet announced last May that half the group was leaving the ensemble. Violinist Sibbi Bernhardsson and violist Masumi Per Rostad had accepted teaching positions at the Oberlin Conservatory School of Music and the Eastman School of Music respectively.

The remaining (and founding) members, husband and wife team Simin Ganatra and Brandon Vamos, chose two new members: violinist Austin Hartman (first violinist with the Biava Quartet for 12 years) and Israeli violist Guy Ben-Ziony, who has been playing chamber music in Europe for several years. This new incarnation of the group performed at a Friends of Chamber Music concert in Portland earlier this month.

Friends of Chamber Music brought Pacifica Quartet’s new incarnation to Portland State University November 13-14. Photo: John Green.

Although these changes were bittersweet, they were also invigorating. “We’ve had the opportunity to dream up what would be the perfect quartet,” Ganatra said.

I had never interviewed a group that had experienced such a profound change so recently and I was very curious about how they went about replacing half the group and its impact on one of the world’s premier chamber ensembles.

Seeking Chemistry

Ganatra and Vamos looked for musicians whom they liked personally, which is important for a group that spends a lot of time working closely together, but also players who inspired them. Before making a final decision, the two original members rehearsed with the new candidates. They were looking for a common language — general agreement about phrasing and color, and for the right chemistry.

Evidently they didn’t have to talk very much. Even in the beginning, there was an understanding communicated in the playing itself. Vamos has played in mixed groups where you had to discuss everything. But for the string quartet, “It’s important that some of it is just instinctual,” he explains. “If you have the chemistry you can speak less, and that’s a good thing.”

Consequences of Change

Vamos believes that the Pacifica’s sound has changed, but that it’s difficult to characterize the change. “Maybe there’s a different approach to articulation. And, of course, they’re playing two different instruments — not just different players but different instruments, and that does affect the quartet’s sound.” He hears it from inside and he’d like to hear what the four of them sound like from the audience, but, well, he can’t do that.

What they can say is how the change has affected the group’s own perceptions and practices. “We’ve been playing the same repertoire for 17 years with the same people,” Vamos says. “You throw two new people into that mix, and all the dynamics change!” So far, Ganatra feels there’s more spontaneity, an energy that feels fresh, and that more is happening in the moment, which is always what they strive for.

The group also spends much more time (five hours per day recently) rehearsing than they used to because of the need to get their repertoire up to speed with the new players. According to Ganatra, it will take 1 1/2 years to get back to the amount of repertoire they had, so they’re doing a kind of “crash course.” They’re getting ready to perform a Beethoven cycle in February, and that’s a lot of music (16 string quartets)!

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