Okay, I finally GET it!...as a dutiful key-thumping piano student in Toronto, I remember feeling so darned lonely during practice and painfully singled out during performances. Before attending the April 8th, 2016 Jeffery Concert with The Pacifica Quartet, I searched for an explanation for what made chamber music so popular for London audiences- and so enticing for the musicians themselves. During a summer festival in that music city- Austin- a reporter interviewed two experienced musicians enjoying participation in the vast array of summer festivals that bloom across the world from May to September.
First, admitted the pianist- for the musicians, chamber music often means summer- the chance to hang around, play music, and swim. Her companion admitted it’s the most social thing musicians do – with no conductor calling the shots and friendships forming quickly over a common experience that instantly creates bonds beyond words. Both musicians called it “the ultimate egalitarian experience, because everyone is necessary all the time…we all realize we’re bringing our best, and we’re each bringing unique contributions to the group”.
The pianist said “it takes a lot of trust and checking the ego at the door”. Playing in an orchestra, they agreed, “It’s where you sit” that dictates your hierarchy. In chamber ensembles, they say, opportunities for leadership and for accompaniment exist at the same time. “In an orchestra, violists are not going to have the melody almost ever. But in a quartet, you have those leadership opportunities”. And both agreed that chamber music requires “a clean heart” – any negative attitude or personal agenda- any hint of overconfidence- will make the musical product bad. Like athletes and actors, chamber musicians have to “know the lines” of everyone else – and their reward is in the process: being part of a team where everyone really wants to be and contribute 100%.
Asked to make a comparison, the pianist said, “I was thinking about opera and orchestra and chamber music in literary terms, and opera is like this big celebrity biography and maybe orchestra is your autobiography, but chamber music is like the diary. It’s the secrets- and to be able to plug into that in a close setting is really great”.
Last evening, the Pacifica Quartet benefited from adversity. The Wolf Hall made unavailable by a power failure, their massive audience was directed to the Church of St. John the Evangelist- and bravo once again to the hands-on, hard-working Board that reached every ticket holder in time to insure this wondrous experience was not missed. Although the sanctuary of the church is grand, its massive wooden beams and arches cradled the sound of four brilliant chamber musicians and gave it back to the awe-struck audience. The quartet has been together for barely two decades, and its list of achievements is long. All members presently live in Bloomington, IN and teach at Indiana University- but they were the first replacements at MOMA after the Guarneri String quartet ended their 43 years of residency. Pacifica’s musicians come from backgrounds as diverse as the New World offers- violinist Simin Ganatra is Pakistani-American, the second violinist Sibbi Bernhardsson is from Iceland, the violist (Masumi Per Rostad) is a New Yorker of Norwegian-Japanese parentage- and Brandon Vamos the cellist comes from a European Jewish background. It was at his parents’ home that young Simin and Sibbi studied. Simin and Brandon are now married and these musicians seem to have formed a family. Watching them play - trading cues, smiles and graceful movements - is as much of the joy as listening.
And playing Beethoven string quartets- from his first set, Opus 18, and the more mature opus 59 - allowed the audience to experience those classics as never before by these attractive, passionate and technically superb chamber musicians. The concert began with the last of Opus 18, the only one of the set in a minor key, demanding a glorious exposition on the violin and appreciating second violin and viola in tremolo effects. Beethoven’s experimental Scherzoso (rather than an Adagio) is packed with polyphonic play that the Pacifica members played with joyously. And the Gypsy-like Rondo is a lyrical delight; the musicians revelled in its histrionics that led to a battling finish!
The No. 6 quartet – “La Malinconia” followed, and listening to it was like following a beautiful conversation because of its weaving of accompaniment figures. Briefly, I can only say that the Pacifica Quartet excels in dynamic contrasts and exuberant performance style- and this B-flat quartet presented them a challenge they more than met.
Ahhh, but after the intermission, the four returned to play the Opus 59 (the Razumovsky quartets) No. 1. Thank goodness for patrons in the early 1800 who put their money into art and commissioned music rather than offshore accounts! Beethoven had already composed the Eroica by this time, as well as the “Waldstein” and “Appassionata” sonatas. Earliest performers were apparently cowed by its innovations, its technical difficulties, and its orchestral scale. But the Pacifica Quartet is an ensemble at the peak of its form and readily played with the changing moods and forms of this beautiful piece.
I’m heading to the internet soon to search out music videos, if they exist, of the Pacifica Quartet playing anything. And if they ever come again to London- I urge you to celebrate or discover this beautiful performance format through them.
Daina Janitis is a Londoner by choice, living in a woodlot just across the city limits, reveling in retirement by volunteering for many of the music groups of the city. She taught English for 33 years in area high schools, planned school travel through Pauwels, managed the London Youth Symphony, and was the last president of the Volunteer Committee of Orchestra London. She continues to be delighted by the unique bounty of creative arts available to Londoners.