Pacifica Quartet at Menlo-Atherton

Beyond technique: finding the narrative

A passionate performance was rooted in deep interpretation last Wednesday, Jan. 11 at the Center for the Performing Arts at Menlo-Atherton. The Pacifica Quartet, one of the top string quartets of our time, picked three gems of the repertoire for their concert, any one of which would have been the anchor of a normal program. Hosted by Music@Menlo’s Winter Series, (an expansion of their three-week-long summer festival), this concert ran from light-hearted to darkly sarcastic.

The delivery was joyous, forceful and intelligent, creating a transparent understanding of the composer’s intent.  In fact, there was such obvious depth and thoughtfulness and attention that each mood was conveyed to create a rich narrative.

Beethoven’s String Quartet in B-flat Major, op. 18 was his break-through moment, when his peers began to equate him with Mozart and Haydn. Standing in their shadow, he waited long to write a quartet, and then published six at once, and the B-flat is said to be the most revolutionary. There is a droll ease to this quartet, propelled by the rhythms of a country trot and full of coy gestures and mock drama. This is apparently a young and hopeful Beethoven, obviously brilliant and competitive, but still dreaming of acceptance and love.

First violinist Simin Ganatra edged her top notes with zest, playful and spirited in the first movement. The Adagio was tender, and here she pulled warmth into the lower register, then trilled a duet with second violinist Sibbi Bernhardsson, whose solidity and careful craft was a rock from which they could leap.

Cellist Brandon Vamos brought them emotional flexibility, clowning in one moment and then wringing bitterness out of his bottom notes in the next. It was a delight to hear those mercurial phrases and moods as he telegraphed and moderated the others.

And rounding out the sound and balance, violist Masumi Per Rostad played with huge assurance. The Adagio had a theme as gentle and direct as a child’s song, and then the Scherzo reminded us of Beethoven’s love of variations. The Finale was a miniature quartet all on its own, beginning with slow drama and sudden harmonies, and then popping off a lovely Allegretto and a final furious wrap-up.

Their artistry prepared us for the powerful work that followed, Dmitri Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 3 in F Major, a piece that challenged too many conventions for his political well-being. This was sarcastic, as is much of Shostakovich’s works, but it was a light-hearted sort of sarcasm with delicious bite. Here, Ganatra’s violin invoked a bad-tempered child, bored and full of mischief. Vamos quoted her passages back at her with high agility and low dirty bowing, and Per Rostad inhabited a distracted angst. In the Moderato his viola set up a compelling rhythm and then soared over it, warm and woodsy.

There were passages made eerie and glassy with mutes, and passages with fierce chords and high leapfrogs. But over all hung a sense that Shostakovich was thumbing his nose at Stalin, a careful truculence coded deep in the music and revealed by the extraordinary lucidity of this performance. That palette of mischief and fear was instantly gripping.

They concluded with another seminal work, Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major. This work of yearning and soft winds was far from Russian bite. Full of whole tone scales and pastel colors, the Pacifica made it both visceral and ephemeral at once. This was Ravel’s only quartet, and it made him visible with the public – but not with the Paris Conservatoire, which refused to award him the Grand Prix that he sought.

There is an elusive quality to this piece but, strangely, it requires enormous focus and timing to make it work. We could hear Ravel’s hopes and “naughty” gestures here, his care and abandon, the generous use of Balinese scales, and his love of the older Debussy, who advised him to “not touch a single note!”

—Adam Broner

Photo, below, of the Pacifica Quartet. From left: Brandon Vamos, Sibbi Bernhardsson, Simin Ganatra, and Masumi Per Rostad; photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco.

Pacifica Quartet- by Lisa Marie Mazzucco