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Virtuosically Human

February 19, 2006

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By Michelle Dulak Thomson

The Pacifica Quartet's performance at Mount Tamalpais Methodist Church on Sunday was a triumph. Not only for the quartet, but for the Mill Valley Chamber Music Society, which hosted the performance. I've heard many more famous ensembles in larger and posher venues that didn't play nearly this well.

The Chicago-based Pacifica is, like almost all string quartets that really work, made up a little idiosyncratically. First violinist Simin Ganatra is a slight woman with a lively mien — I think she must have the most expressive eyebrows in all quartetdom. The second, Sibbi Bernhardsson, is in physical terms a more powerful player, and even, to my ears, a more interesting one. The excellent violist Masumi Rostad has a sound a little difficult to characterize, neither the wiry, intense kind nor the boomy, resonant kind. It's just even, mellow, and powerful at need, as is Brandon Vamos's cello. In the aggregate, the sound is also hard to characterize. There's little of the knife-edge, perfectly blended, conservatory-trained American quartet vibe about it, but neither is there that conscious differentiation of tone colors you get in some other quartets, both here and in Europe.

Pacifica Quartet

The Pacifica's Mozart "Dissonant" Quartet (K. 465) was adroit, though just a little bland. The slow movement's accompanying eighth notes were all plush, all lovely, all exactly uniform, but nothing led anywhere. The fast movements fared better, but even there I thought Ganatra's sound was too unvaried, too "the same" through long notes and even too consistent in shorter ones. There's a way of putting a little vibrato "spin" on the front of a pitch, and neither she nor her colleagues seemed interested in doing it.

On the other hand, the finale was delightful. The Pacifica seems to have the knack of planning spontaneous gestures. I don't mean elaborately choreographing things that are supposed to appear spontaneous, which any diligent quartet could do with enough practice. I mean understanding that "at a certain spot, something is probably going to happen, so let's all look at one another at that spot and decide what it will be." It's an uncommonly good formula for the finale of the "Dissonant," and an even better one for the remainder of the Pacifica's program.

A challenge met, in the right way

Apparently the Quartet has just recorded Janácek's Second Quartet last month. That's a pending CD worth looking out for, because Sunday's performance was about as eloquent and well-paced as any I've heard. The piece is a little difficult to describe to anyone who hasn't heard it. It shrieks and caresses and exults and falls into despair and goes into mad frenzies and emerges into Elysium and falls back out again, and all that generally within a minute or two. Add that all the parts are borderline-impossible, and you can see why every ambitious quartet wants to play it. There aren't many pieces that give you such manifold opportunities.

But the thing about the Pacifica performance was that they didn't sound like "opportunities" so much as realities. I mean that the tender parts of the score sounded tenderly human, and the ferocious parts humanly ferocious. Janácek's Second is one of those pieces (Bartók's Fourth Quartet is another) that efficient young quartets program to prove they have the chops. This wasn't a performance of that kind. It was virtuosic, yes, sometimes in the extreme (though I rather think the really impracticable chord ending the first movement was revoiced a bit), but I got the sense that these players would tolerate a little technical slop in the pursuit of a musical shape.

An unexpected blessing

Ever feel glad to see a late Beethoven quartet dropped from a program, and something else substituted? I was, Sunday, when the Pacifica dropped Op. 130 and the Grosse Fuge, but that's only because they substituted the same composer's Op. 132. I love Op. 130, but Op. 132 is one of those few pieces I can't imagine being without. And the Pacifica performance was magnificent. It was the same situation as the Janácek: It was human, without being made up mostly of flaws, and also spontaneous in a way that didn't — couldn't — seem calculated. The first movement varied wildly in tempo without the least sense of affectation. The music just seemed to take the players to the right speed. The scherzo found the quartet making merry with what they could do as an ensemble, but also having instrumental, individual fun.

And the great Heiliger Dankgesang (Sacred song of thanksgiving) that is the center of the piece was played by the same principles. There are two treacherous paths toward that movement. You can, if you have a skillful ensemble, make the quartet pretend to be an organ, leach everything specifically human out of the sound, and make blend and voicing all that matters. Or else you can just pretend it's a quartet slow movement and play the notes extremely well and beautifully. This was neither. It was austere, but not pointedly so, with just a little of that mortal tremor we mortals call vibrato. It wasn't, you understand, excessively frail, but somehow the two sections marked "Neue Kraft fühlend" (Feeling new strength) seemed quite different in strength from the rest in a way that they don't when the hymn variations are played, as they often are now, with inhuman control. Here there was merely human control, and the "Neue Kraft" sections really did betoken "new strength" as well as joy.

After that, the jaunty march, the recitative (Ganatra was blistering there), and the surging finale all made sense. The quartet had been careful not to indulge in showy bowings all evening, but at the last they went for three down-bows for the last three chords. Attempts to get an encore out of them were in vain. There isn't really anything you can play after Op. 132.

(Michelle Dulak Thomson is a violinist and violist who has written about music for Strings, Stagebill, Early Music America, and The New York Times.)

©2006 Michelle Dulak Thomson, all rights reserved