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Pacifica Quartet Finds a New Home

March 8, 2010

THE name of a string quartet can echo the place of its inception, as with the original Budapest Quartet and the Juilliard String Quartet. Other quartets, like the Busch and Arditti, have borne the names of their founders. You can find an ensemble named for virtually any composer who ever wrote a string quartet of consequence. And then there is the Pacifica Quartet, one of the fastest-rising ensembles today, named, evidently, for a youthful pipe dream.

Pacifica Quartet
Members: Simin Ganatra, violin I • Sibbi Bernhardsson, violin II
Masumi Per Rostad, viola • Brandon Vamos, cello

“The original idea was to start and live in L.A.,” Sibbi Bernhardsson, the Pacifica Quartet’s second violinist, said during a recent conversation with two members of the quartet in a Greenwich Village apartment. Mr Bernhardsson founded the group in 1994 with the violinist Simin Ganatra, a classmate at the Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio originally from Southern California, and Brandon Vamos, a cellist with whose parents Mr Bernhardsson and Ms Ganatra had studied. (The violist Masumi Per Rostad, who grew up in the East Village, joined the quartet in 2001.)

“Shortly after, we got a little residency in Chicago, at a school called the Music Institute,” Mr Bernhardsson said. “We were doing a lot of outreach, and it was just enough money that we were able to rehearse instead of doing lots of gigging. So we moved to Chicago, but we were just too lazy to change the name.”

That would have been the group’s only instance of laxity. For the four young players, home is Champaign, Ill., where they are on the faculty of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. They also manage residencies at the University of Chicago and the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Mass.

Those residencies establish a firm foundation in a busy schedule of international touring. “All the stuff that’s happening in Europe, it’s exciting to feel like things are expanding,” Mr Rostad said. “We just played in Australia, and we go to Japan once in a while. The sick thing is actually how many miles we fly a year. Even the cello used to be Executive Platinum.”

On the evening of Oct. 24, the Pacifica Quartet [laid out] out yet another welcome mat, this one at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it was recently named quartet in residence. That position was previously held by the venerable Guarneri String Quartet, which played at the museum for 43 seasons before retiring this month. The Guarneri quartet bade New York farewell with a concert at the museum in May, before a capacity audience.

That the Pacifica Quartet was tapped to replace the Guarneri is no small matter. The museum has a rich concert history: performers like Peter Serkin, Andras Schiff and Cecilia Bartoli gave their first New York performances there. Noteworthy artists have formed lasting associations: the Beaux Arts Trio played there from 1973 until its farewell concert in 2008. Itzhak Perlman’s affiliation with the museum, where he now leads ensembles of young musicians, extends over four decades.

Faced with the prospect of filling such an auspicious berth, Hilde Limondjian, the curator of the museum’s concerts since 1969, was urged to hear the Pacifica Quartet during its 18-concert Beethoven quartet series in Philosophy Hall at Columbia University during the 2007–8 season. Ms Limondjian—who found the Guarneri String Quartet at the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont in 1964 and brought it to the attention of William Kolodney, the founder of the museum’s concert series—eventually acted on the tip, and it was love at first hearing.

“I was transported, and after all these years it doesn’t happen all the time,” Ms Limondjian said. “When it happens it is so strong, so unforgettable, unmistakable.”

In a cab heading back to the museum, she recalled, she was inspired to scribble haikus on a newspaper. “I never write poetry, and I wrote two of them,” she said. “They had put me into a whole different space. I decided I had to have them for the series.”

To set the stage for the transition Ms Limondjian booked the Pacifica Quartet to play a concert in a Beethoven cycle divided among several quartets during the Guarneri String Quartet’s last season at the museum. With the young quartet engaged, planning for its first three seasons began in earnest.

“We started doing a lot of brainstorming about how we could make this series interesting,” Mr Bernhardsson said. The first season, the players decided, they would present “three great programs of music that we had played a lot and sort of associated ourselves with, and maybe recorded,” Mr Bernhardsson said. The first concert will include pieces by Mozart, Janacek and Brahms; a January program features Mendelssohn, Beethoven and Jennifer Higdon; music by Haydn, Bartok and Schubert follows in February.

In subsequent seasons the quartet will burrow into complete cycles of the quartets by Shostakovich (in 2010–11) and Beethoven (2011–12).

“When you play a lot of pieces by the same composer,” Mr Rostad said, “you start to get to know them, what their vibe is, how they get from one work into the next—their basic natural tempo, if that makes sense. By playing a lot of it, we end up getting to play it better.”

Cycles are nothing new for the Pacifica Quartet, which recorded all of Mendelssohn’s quartets for the Cedille label from 2002 to 2004 and which firmly cemented its place among today’s elite ensembles with its complete traversals of Elliott Carter’s five string quartets in concerts at the Miller Theater in 2002 and at the New York Society for Ethical Culture in 2008.

The Pacifica recorded Mr Carter’s works for the Naxos label. The first volume won a Grammy Award, and the feat made a durable impression, not least on the composer himself.

CARTER String Quartets Nos 1 & 5
Pacifica Quartet

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
Pacifica Quartet

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”.

“Obviously I never had the idea that these pieces would all be played in a string,” Mr Carter said in a recent conversation at his Greenwich Village apartment. “They were not composed like that. Each one’s about 10 years apart. What interested me was the fact that one string quartet related to another one, but that they understood how to keep it as though they were not all sounding alike. I thought they caught that very well, and that impressed me a good deal.”

For the Pacifica members, working with Mr Carter helped to enrich their understanding and interpretation of his works. When they played the quartets in his home, Mr Bernhardsson said, Mr Carter’s comments were generally limited to details of balance and character. “But there was also something about playing in front of him,” he said, “just being in his presence and watching him as he’s watching his score and listening, just watching his face and how he gestured gives you a little bit of an idea, so that actually was meaningful to us.”

Mr Carter’s music may not be the typical stuff of an evening at the Metropolitan Museum, where the programming generally hews closer to mainstream repertory. But the Pacifica Quartet’s association with Mr Carter was no deterrent in Ms Limondjian’s view.

“The fact that they had done Elliott Carter was a great plus for me, because it showed their great range,” she said. “A quartet that espouses Carter and plays Beethoven so well is a quartet of great consequence and substance, in my opinion.”

In the concerts it presents elsewhere, the Pacifica Quartet places a premium on new pieces, playing as many as eight premieres each year. In its residency at the University of Chicago it works extensively with student composers and collaborates with Contempo, the new-music ensemble founded by the composer Ralph Shapey and now overseen by another composer, Shulamit Ran. This season the quartet will join the sextet Eighth Blackbird, also in residence at the University of Chicago, in the premiere of Frederic Rzewski’s “Knight, Death, and Devil.”

Perhaps in time the Pacifica Quartet will have the opportunity to inject more of the new music that forms a steady portion of its working diet into its programs at the Met. For now there is the Jennifer Higdon piece—a revised version of “Voices,” which she dedicated to the group—as well as the welcome opportunities to explore Shostakovich’s music and delve once more into Beethoven’s cycle.
In so doing, the members of the quartet may be demonstrating the seriousness with which they are facing the prospect of replacing the Guarneri String Quartet at the Met. Mr Rostad recalled going to hear the Guarneri play concerts at the museum when he was a young student at the Third Street Music School Settlement in the East Village and taking a class field trip to Lincoln Center for a screening of “High Fidelity,” Allan Miller’s 1989 documentary about the quartet.

Though Mr Bernhardsson had not shared those experiences, he echoed Mr Rostad’s appreciation. “We are very aware how our career would not be possible without the Guarneri, and that’s just a fact,” he said. “They paved the road.”

– Steve Smith, The New York Times, 15 October 2009

Read the interview on The New York Times website


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