The 2009 Honorees

By Heidi Waleson

It’s a model 21st-century string quartet. These open-minded young players thrive on strange bedfellows: venerable masters, modern masters, overlooked gems, and brand-new works by emerging composers. This year, complete cycles of Carter and Mendelssohn.

Composer cycles represent a rich vein of repertory for string quartets, but few young ensembles take on the thorniest of modern masters in bulk. Back in 2002, however, the Pacifica Quartet did just that, and put itself on the map by performing, in different cities, a program that featured all five Elliott Carter quartets in a single evening. “That these dynamic players . . . played more than two hours of the most difficult music ever conceived with such technical assurance and keen musicianship was impressive enough,” read the New York Times review of the November 2002 performances at Columbia University’s Miller Theater. “But they did more, bringing out the music’s volatile emotions, delicacy, and even, in places, plucky humor.”

Not surprising, the Pacifica is playing an important role in the celebration of the composer’s 100th birthday this season. The first of two Naxos discs, featuring Quartets Nos. 1 and 5, was released in 2008, and the second, with the other three, is due in 2009. The cycle will also be performed in San Francisco, London, and Lisbon, and offer individual performances of the quartets in other venues.
This high-powered young ensemble, founded in 1994, combines technical prowess with great expressivity, and in both its music-making and way of life represents a model string quartet of the 21st century. With the first violinist, Simin Ganatra, as the driving force behind its creation, the Pacifica’s formative years were spent in intense rehearsal, with no distractions, a strategy that paid off with early competition wins including the 1998 Naumburg Chamber Music Competition. Today, the quartet balances a university faculty position and two other residencies with a heavy touring schedule, while its open-minded approach to repertory embraces venerable masters, modern masters, overlooked gems, and brand new works by emerging composers. And cycles. “We enjoy delving into one composer for a while,” says BrandonVamos, the quartet’s cellist. “We feel that we get a sense of progression from one work to the next.”
At the end of the summer of 2008, the quartet was about to dive back into its schedule with the recording of the Carter Quartet No. 3. “It’s always challenging—we have to rehearse a lot every time we play them,” says Vamos. “As with any great music, we’re constantly learning something new in it. Like Beethoven. And the quartets are so complex that playing them has expanded our ability. It has forced us to go to a different level. For example, Carter has the quartet as four individuals, with a distinct personality for each part. So now we’re forced to be individual players in Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Dvorák, and Mozart as well. We want to blend and have a homogenous sound, but there is so much conversation, so much individual expression, that we want to go that way too.”
That goal reflects the quartet’s motto, “Distinct as the billows/yet one as the sea,” a line from the British poet James Montgomery that refers back to its namesake, the Pacific Ocean. Such a considered coexistence is also the essence of its success. The four members have both strong ties and differences. Vamos and Ganatra have been married to each other since 2000 and have been acquainted even longer, since Ganatra moved from her native California to Minnesota to live and study violin with Vamos’s parents, Roland and Almita Vamos, and then followed them to the Oberlin Conservatory, where she got her undergraduate degree. Sibbi Bernhardsson, the second violinist, came to Oberlin from his native Iceland to study with the Vamoses, but only joined the quartet in 2000 (prior to that, he did a stint as a backup musicianfor his countrywoman Björk); the violist, Masumi Per Rostad, who grew up in New York, the son of Japanese and Norwegian parents, joined in 2001.
Last season, the Pacifica played 90 concerts in a schedule that took it all over the world. It zeroed in on Beethoven, performing the complete quartets in several venues, including a cycle in Napa Valley wineries and as part of an unusual program at Columbia University, where it played one quartet per concert, at lunchtime, for a standing-room-only crowd in a lecture hall. At each concert, a quartet member would discuss the work about to be played. “We didn’t tell the others what we would say or do, and sometimes the things we talked about could come up later in rehearsals,” Ganatra says. “And people would ask questions or make comments—lots of them had scores, and interesting insights and ideas.” The quartet is repeating the lunchtime program this year, performing the Mendelssohn quartets, which it recorded for Çedille in 2005 and will also play throughout the season as a cycle.
The Pacifica members often talk during concerts, usually about new works but recently about the late Beethoven quartets. Vamos says, “It’s better for the audience, and we feel that we play better, having made that connection with the audience.” In defiance of popular wisdom, Vamos and Ganatra often find that on a mixed program, the new piece is the most accessible. “The first Ligeti quartet, Bartók, or Shostakovich—often that gets people most excited.”
The balance of old and new repertory changes from year to year. “We talk as a quartet about what we are dying to play,” says Ganatra. “We are lucky, because the repertory for string quartet is so amazing.” Good new music is easy to find: They receive many scores, are in touch with composers, and compare notes withother quartets. The Pacifica has commissioned a number of works, and in April will play the world premiere of a quintet by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich for quartet and saxophone. And then there are more cycles: Next season, it will play all three late Schubert quartets and explore the quartets of Shostakovich.
Teaching is central to the quartet’s activities. Since 2004, the players have held a faculty position as a quartet, with individual teaching studios, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which gives them a base, a salary, and a comfortable college-town home. In addition, they continue a long-standing relationship with the University of Chicago, where they work with student composers and are the resident ensemble for the contemporary-music series. A third residency, just beginning its second year, is with the Longy School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they do everything from working with students on devising outreach projects to coaching student chamber-music coaches. “Sometimes we think, we’re so busy, maybe we should cut back, but each of these residencies is unique,” Ganatra says.
It’s a long way from the early, lean years, when the four original members lived on credit cards in Chicago,where they did outreach programs for a community music school and practiced together all day. Winningthe Concert Artists Guild competition in 1997 brought them some concerts. “We would just break even, but we loved it. It was great to break in, playing all these small venues, rehearsing, and trying to sound like a quartet,” Ganatra recalls. The Naumburg brought more dates, and professional management. In 2002, their final formation in place, they played their Carter cycle, and the Pacifica Quartet had arrived.
The fact that two of the quartet members are married to each other and now have a two-year old daughter requires some adjustment. “We try hard to make sure that we are not a separate unit in the quartet,” Vamos says. “We make a conscious effort not to discuss quartet issues—whether musical or life issues—when we are not with the others.” Their daughter, a good traveler, goes on the road with them. “There are lots of quartets with marriages and children now,” Vamos says. “The way to be a quartet has definitely changed. When I was in college, making a living in a quartet seemed like a dream. Now, so many universities and conservatories have started residencies, giving quartets stability, and there are so many wonderful places to play. It’s a great life for a musician. I can’t think of anything better.”
Heidi Waleson is opera critic of the Wall Street Journal and a contributor to innumerable other publications.


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