Pacifica Quartet showcases its virtuosity

Wed Aug 04, 2010 at 11:55 am

By Gerald Fisher

The Pacifica Quartet performed Tuesday night at Ravinia’s Martin Theatre.

Music of two great German Romantics and a challenging new work by an American composer were on the menu at Ravinia’s Martin Theatre Tuesday night, served up by the fine artists of the Pacifica Quartet.

The Pacifica (Simin Ganatra and Sibbi Bernhardsson, violins, Masumi Per Rostad, viola and Brandon Varmos, cello) are experienced interpreters of Beethoven’s quartets but Tuesday’s performance of the Opus 18, No.1 was far from routine as the ensemble’s tightness and intensity made for an exciting realization of one of the composer’s earliest mature works.

The quartet, dating from 1798 – 1800, contains many of the characteristics of Beethoven’s later music – its dramatic contrasts, thematic terseness and pattern of continuous development. From the opening theme—a brusque motif, contrasted with a tender response in the first violin—we are launched into the sound world of a highly original artist who is still working within the established mould.

The second movement Adagio is the musical crux of the piece. Inspired by the tomb scene in Romeo and Juliet, this movement takes us out of the rational world of Haydn into the uncharted emotional territory of the Romantic age.
The uncanny ability of the Pacifica to breathe together was especially noticeable here, and they handled the emotional contrasts of the movement, as well as its strikingly dramatic pauses, with a perfect unity – which extended through the subsequent movements.

The group’s facility infused the more problematic contemporary work by Jennifer Higdon with a clarity that made sonic sense of its harsh dissonances, polytonal squeals and propulsive rhythms. The composer’s Voices was written for the Pacifica and they performed it with commitment and precision. Last heard in Chicago in January at Hyde Park’s Mandel Hall, it was a good choice for this Ravinia program, serving as a bracing modernist intermezzo between two major works from the Romantic period.

This work’s three movements are played without pause so listeners are forced to find their way through the tangled underbrush without a map. No better guide could be found than the Pacifica Quartet who kept things clean and brought out each section’s essence. The piece moved from the harshness of Blitz through the longer drawn out notes of Soft Enlacing and culminated with the more emotive and darker harmonies of Grace, voiced notably by the cello and viola.

The second half of the program introduced the young American pianist Orion Weiss for a performance of Schumann’s finest piece of chamber music, the Piano Quintet.

Orion Weiss

The quintet is an amazing work, carefully crafted and containing some of Schumann’s most inspired music right from the bold opening, which announces the presence of the piano in no uncertain terms. Orion Weiss is a gifted pianist with a light touch who plays with style. He was a bit overwhelmed by the hyperkinetic Pacifica, however, who held the front of the stage with their usual authority. As the quintet ideally pits two equal forces against each other, this performance missed a bit of the drama inherent in the piece.

Still it was a richly musical experience all the same. The first movement unfolded energetically with the radiant melodies gracefully shaped and varied with nice interplay among the strings and piano. The second movement begins with the famous Gothick funeral march. The contest between the darkness and the major-key second subject ends with the darkness prevailing, with particularly sensitive playing by Ganatra.

The scherzo, with its reminders of Mendelssohn’s own scherzos triumphantly leads to the Allegro finale which ties together themes from earlier movements and ends with a surprising bold double fugue in place of a coda. All of this was boldly characterized by the group.

As if the Schumann weren’t riches enough, the team offered as an encore the slow movement from the Brahms Piano Quintet. Here the piano shone out and the strings sang and whetted the appetite for a complete performance by the same forces.

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