Chamber Music Society of Salt Lake: Pacifica Quartet @ Libby Gardner 01.18

Posted January 26, 2012 in

Pacifica Quartet. Photo Credit: Anthony Parmelee
The Pacifica Quartet"Simin Ganatra (Violin), Sibbi Bernhardsson (Violin), Massumi Per Rostad (Viola) and Brandon Vamos (Cello)"formed in 1994. The quarter has received numerous awards over the years, such as the Avery Fisher Career grant (they are only the second chamber group so rewarded) and has performed historical concerts, including the complete Beethoven cycle over five concerts in three days at Tokyo’s Suntory Hall. They also famously toured the five quartet Eliot Carter cycle in New York, San Francisco, and abroad. Their recording of the Carter quartets on Naxos won them a Grammy. In their live performance, they are masters of tone, playing together with almost hand-matched color. From the Violist’s black-haired bow and sail-in-the-wind body gestures to the St.Teresa-like contortions of Ms. Ganatra, the event had the gestalt (minus the gore, of course) of a butterfly tearing free from its chrysalis"a scene of real, emotional events out of important but little movements.

Contrary to the written program, which started with Shostokovich’s quartet in E Flat Major Op. 117, written in 1964, this performance began with Nikolai Miaskovsky’s Quartet no. 13 in A minor, Op.86. I didn’t know this, of course. The obviously Russian romantic nature of the Miaskovsky took me by surprise. M. was an engineer by training, and a soldier by trade. He came to composing in his later twenties. Politically savvy, and ready to work, he skewed his writing to fit into what was, during the early Leninist period of Soviet history, a very repressive and ideologically pure set of allowable arts. His skill at fitting in was such that he is referred to as the “Father of the Soviet Symphony,” as differentiated from the Russian symphony. He won the Stalin prize six times.

But the Quartet we heard tonight speaks to a real world of village life, fantastic aspirations, and a bright future. It is a humble, human-sized shiny prize from an era of suspicion and blood. A traditional four-movement quartet, it sang with the themes and harmonies one expects from Russian romanticism. Inventive internal moments, such as the three-part second movement (presto fantastico), sounding like a very large boulder falling down a mountain, then over a road, then down a cliff, the down a mountain again - only with violins, were great. And parts of the fourth movement whirl of energy, spiraling at different tempos and keys into one awesome hulk that danced suddenly above the stage, reminded me of some of the explosive parts of Smashing Pumpkins break-downs on Siamese Dream.

The Shostakovitch Quartet was a revelation. I had never heard it before, nor anything quite like it. Five movements of twentieth century Russia, all back-lit with the blue hum of the mid-century electric valve. You could almost hear the generator in the village keeping the lights bright on Shostakovitch’s shoulders as this was written"this nervous, affectionate love song for his new wife. No pauses of any terminal length were placed between the movements. The whole thing rushed by for one movement, and then it was over. All five movements"loud-quiet-loud-quiet-loud"Wow … and then it was over. I barely wet my hands, and wish I could hear it again.

The Beethoven Quartet in F Major, Op. 59 No. 1. (Rasoumovsky) was written as a commission for the eponymous Count R. The first in a set of three, it received mixed reception at the time. The quartet of Beethoven’s contemporaries that played it first thought themselves the butt of a joke, the piece was quite unusual in intention, even, perhaps, percussive. That is true for the first movement in any case. The movements that follow are significantly more emotional and sorrowful. Beethoven himself thought the piece, and the set of three quartets it came with, were “for a later age.” For myself, this last piece of the night was neither as exciting and engaging as the first two more contemporary pieces, nor winningly beautiful in its presentation or themes to engage me.

Lets just say, The Twentieth Century Music won The Critic’s Award tonight, and leave it at that. Way to go Modernism. Way to go repression-inspired anti-ahistorical rage!

That you haven’t listened (really listened) to contemporary classical is on you. I too, was ignorant of both Shostakovich and Miaskovsky as music to live with until this show. I took this gig because I love, love, love Schubert and Beethoven. I liked lots of other things as well"I like the Viennese School of the early Twentieth Century, and the French of the late Nineteenth"But the sheer amount of emotional geography, both mountain and forest, I haven’t traveled is made evident with every one of these chamber concerts I attend while writing for SLUG. I look forward to the trek. I think you should join me next time, February 22 for the Faure Piano Quartet, performing Suk, Faure and Brahms. For more info go to
Pacifica Quartet. Photo Credit: Anthony Parmelee The Quartet in performance at The Met Museum, photo credit: Richard Termine