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I've been following the Pacifica Quartet for a few years now, and I've come to the conclusion that, despite some very fierce competition, they are my favorite string quartet. This is largely, of course, because of the way they play. Whether it's Beethoven or Shostakovich or something completely modern, the music seems to retain its own character and at the same time become completely theirs. There is nothing strident or self-dramatizing about their interpretations: they never depart from the norm in a way that shocks or unnerves. And yet the differences between their performances and everyone else's are distinct and important. It's something to do with the dynamics, the way the Pacificas delicately alter the volume on otherwise repeated phrases. It's something to do with the meshing of the four instruments, so that each one is heard separately, while at the same time their rhythmic collaboration seems almost uncannily coherent. And it's something to do with how pure their tones are, whether they are producing high, fast notes or somber, slow ones.
I would no doubt enjoy all of these qualities of theirs even in a recording--and in fact I do enjoy them in their latest recording, a Cedille Records CD of four Shostakovich quartets (numbers 5 through 8) plus one quartet by Shostakovich's colleague Myaskovsky. But something additional accrues when you see the Pacificas perform live. They are an attractive and various crew, to be sure: Simin Ganatra, the first violin, is a Pakistani-American who hails from Southern California; Sibbi Bernhardsson, the second violin, is from Iceland; Masumi Per Rostad, the violist, is a New Yorker whose parents are Norwegian and Japanese; and Brandon Vamos comes from one of those motley European Jewish backgrounds that involves cousins in numerous foreign countries, though he grew up in the Midwest. Simin, the only woman, is not only a great violinist, but she also has one of the most expressive faces in any chamber group performing today. And the others follow and reciprocate her expressiveness, partly in their glances toward her (she generally gives the cues) and partly in their own bodily and facial gestures. This is particularly true of Vamos, who sways from side-to-side with his cello on the most melodic passages, and whose interludes with Ganatra (when, as in many quartets, the first violin and the cello have collaborative moments) feel as intimate as two musicians can be.
This is as it should be, for Ganatra and Vamos are married to each other (Bernhardsson and Per Rostad are both married to other people) and form the core, as it were, of this familial company. The quartet was founded in 1994, but they all seem too young to have played that long together. Vamos met Ganatra when she was still in her teens, living in his parents' house and studying violin with his mother, a noted teacher in the Midwest. Ganatra met Bernhardsson when they were at college together and he too was studying with Vamos's parents. And Per Rostad, the relative latecomer, joined the group over a decade ago, when they lost their original violist and Bernhardsson suggested that they try out this talented acquaintance of his. Despite their name's allusion to the Pacific Ocean (a nod to Ganatra's L.A. origins, I think), the four of them currently teach and live in Champaign, Illinois, where they are the quartet-in-residence at the University of Illinois; they are also on the faculty at the University of Chicago, a few hours' drive away. All of this means that they have already spent more time together than most siblings who have grown up in large families--and unlike most grown siblings, they continue to spend that amount of time together every week, whether they are touring, teaching, rehearsing, or just hanging out at home.
All this would be mere gossip if the Pacificas did not convey exactly this feeling of intimacy to their chamber-music audience. You can sense their long-term ties and their ongoing affection in the way they play together--particularly in a live performance, when you can watch their glances and smiles and concerted bowstrokes and quietly dancing feet. These are four people who share a great deal, and yet they all manage to make their separate presences heard in the music. I know from listening to them talk about their work that they hash things out in private--individual interpretations, preferences for what to include in the reportoire, and so forth--and that they then come up with a unified performance that is the result of all these opinions melded together. It is an astonishing thing to behold, and audiences always respond warmly to it.
I first became aware of the group in 2001, when they were playing the full cycle of Beethoven quartets at a series of lunchtime concerts at Columbia's Philosophy Hall. After that I consciously began to follow their career--in Napa Valley, where they have played at Music in the Vineyards, and in New York, where they became the quartet-in-residence at the Metropolitan Museum. Two seasons ago, when they were performing the complete Shostakovich quartets at the Met, I volunteered my services as an onstage interviewer before the performances, and they readily accepted; it is a role that made me feel, if only briefly, as if I were one of the far-flung cousins in their extended family. I loved the way they performed Shostakovich: their rendering of the Second Quartet made it new to me, and their version of the Third is the best I've ever heard, and as for their Eighth...well, you get the idea. I've also loved hearing them do the full Beethoven cycle this year, bringing to full circle my encounter with their playing.
As they played Opus 135 last Saturday night--Beethoven's final work, and their final performance in the series of six concerts--Masumi Per Rostad announced from the stage that this would be their last appearance as the Met's quartet-in-residence. An audible, unanimous groan of disappointment arose from the audience. I too felt saddened (not to mention concerned that the Met didn't know when it had a good thing going). And then I reassured myself with the thought that the Pacificas, though they won't be appearing regularly at the Met anymore, will get plenty of gigs in New York and elsewhere. Next week they will be at the Konzerthaus in Berlin, doing a program of very modern music, and by chance I will be there to hear them. In May they will be in Montreal, presenting a complete Shostakovich cycle at the Festival of Chamber Music, and again I will be there (this time not at all by chance). But you too can play this game. Just look up the Pacifica Quartet's schedule on their website and find out when they will be coming to an auditorium near you. I guarantee you are in for a treat.