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Pacifica Quartet: The Power of Music

May 20, 2009

The Pacifica Quartet has gained superb reviews for its Naxos recordings of Elliott Carter’s string quartets, part of the Naxos American Classics range. As this article from the March 2009 issue of Gramophone magazine shows, the young players are challenging their own perceptions of the power of music to communicate with people:

Never Too Late: the Pacifica Quartet's cellist BRANDON VAMOS on a powerful visit to an American juvenile detention centre

It was early on in the Quartet's career, probably about 12 years ago, and we'd started doing a few outreach events.

Every time was a new experience, but on this particular occasion we were all quite nervous. On the way to the event they were explaining that this was a juvenile detention centre for very serious offenders, that the people wearing orange jumpsuits were the people who have committed violent crimes—murder and rape. So we got there: it was a cement building, very institutionalised, and I think we all felt very nervous about how they would react to us. We'd played in nursing homes, we'd played in schools, but here was an environment that we thought might be resistant to classical music.

Most of the inmates coming in were wearing orange jumpsuits—they were 16, 17 years old, a very sad environment. We started to play, and at first they were very quiet but they seemed to be really responding, and we kind of loosened up as we went.

I remember thinking: what can we play for them? If we'd started with Mozart it might remind them of what they see on TV, the fancy ball with tuxedos, and stuffiness—and that's really not how we feel about the music we play, even though we love playing Mozart. So we played Bartók—his Fifth Quartet, which has a very exciting energy to it. Then we played some very intense late Beethoven, and talked about the composers and their lives. They were intrigued by it. And then we talked about our lives a little.

But it was really when they started asking questions that we realised how important this kind of thing was. They were obviously getting very few outside experiences. I remember one of the questions that really struck me was when a kid in an orange jumpsuit raised his hand and said: "Do you think it's too late to start learning an instrument?" The way he said it was so sincere. He was thinking about something beyond this period when he was going to be incarcerated, like he really wanted to do something with his life.

I came out thinking it was a very special experience. Sometimes with outreach events you play for kids and then they're gone, and maybe they had a good time for 45 minutes. But at this place I felt it meant something to more of them, and it really meant something to us. It changed my perception of what we could do with music.

- Gramophone, March 2009

CARTER String Quartets Nos 1 & 5

GRAMMY® AWARD 2009 Best Chamber Music Performance
5 STARS The Guardian
4 STARS The Times
4 STARS The Daily Telegraph

Released to celebrate the American master Elliott Carter’s centenary, this is the first of two discs of the complete String Quartets. Carter himself has written: ‘I probably decided to write what was to be the First Quartet when I read about a composition prize in Liège, Belgium, because there were many ideas swarming around in my imagination about expression, rhythm, and harmony, mostly derived from my Cello Sonata…Then my Second, Third, and Fourth Quartets developed my imaginings in different ways until I began to realize that soon I would exhaust this direction, and so my Fifth Quartet became a farewell to the previous four and an exploration of a new vision.’

CARTER String Quartets Nos 2, 3 & 4

5 STARS The Daily Telegraph

To celebrate his 100th birthday, Elliott Carter’s Complete String Quartets have been newly recorded by the Pacifica Quartet, Musical America’s Ensemble of the Year for 2009. Volume 1 (8.559362) was critically acclaimed: “a knockout” (Limelight), “Music with heart as well as a brain” (4 STARS, The Times), “the best possible introduction to Carter’s music” (5 STARS, The Guardian). This disc presents the three remaining string quartets by the composer hailed by Aaron Copland as “one of America’s most distinguished creative artists in any field”.

Pacifica Quartet Biography & Discography

Elliot Carter Biography & Discography

Naxos American Classics Catalogue


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