The Pacifica Quartet opens Florida’s music season in style

By David Fleshler

The Pacifica Quartet ranks among the best of the many youthful chamber ensembles that have emerged in recent years. The quartet has carried off a multitude of awards and honors, and last year, in what some saw as a passing of the baton, succeeded the Guarneri Quartet as the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s quartet in residence.

The Pacifica performed Saturday at the University of Miami’s Gusman Hall to open the 30th anniversary season of the Sunday Afternoons of Music series with works of Beethoven, Shostakovich and Schumann.

The quartet does not play with the monolithic precision of many top ensembles. Individual styles were apparent, particularly between the buttery smoothness of first violinist Simin Ganatra and the more hard-edged approach of second violinist Sibbi Bernhardsson. And while ensemble playing was generally tight, they did not always play with knife-edged accuracy Saturday. Both violinists ran into intonation and fingering problems when the going got fast in the concluding Allegro molto of Beethoven’s Quartet in C Major, Op. 59 No. 3.

But with this came a greater sense of spontaneity than you tend to find among chamber ensembles that have performed together for years. Even in such a basic repertory work as the Beethoven, which they must have performed dozens of times, the players’ attention to each other was clear, as they constantly watched and followed each other’s turns of phrase. A consistent strength throughout the Beethoven was the warm, oak-solid tone and immaculate bowing of the violist Masumi Per Rostad, whose sturdy playing in the fugal last movement emerged easily from the surrounding sound without a trace of effort.

The best performance of the evening came in Shostakovich’s dark Quartet No. 3, composed just after World War II and containing movements with titles such as In memory of the dead. The quartet has scheduled complete Shostakovich cycles in Chicago and New York this season, and their concentration on this music was apparent throughout the performance.

The composer gave the quartet a symphonic scale in both length and orchestration, and the quartet fully realized this on the Gusman stage. The third movement, The Forces of War Unleashed, was a powerful musical expression of violence, with harsh, barking chords. The strong viola and cello playing cut through the accompanying notes, and a huge nearly orchestral volume of sound filled the hall.

The fourth movement passacaglia brought sensitive, passionate playing from violinist Ganatra in the bleak solo line. And they brought the last movement to a powerful climax, with searing rapid high notes in the violins, as the slow movement theme returned, before the music died out in a quiet conclusion.

Unlike the quartets of Beethoven and Shostakovich, those of Schumann aren’t ranked with his strongest or most popular works. But the quartet gave a sensitive performance of his Quartet No 1 in A minor that offered the most sheer tonal beauty of the evening. They brought a galloping vigor to the second movement Scherzo, playing with just enough bite without overpowering the music with bow noise. In the Adagio, a wistful melody set against arpeggios that resembles Schumann’s piano works, they appeared to suppress some of their individual styles for this movement, blending together with singing tones as the melody moved from the cello up through the other instruments.

The concert took place on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. Before the quartet came on stage, Sunday Afternoons’ executive director Doreen Marx asked for a moment of silence to remember the victims. And after completing the scheduled program, the quartet played the Cavatina from Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13, Op. 130 in memory of those killed, after first making the request–apparently not heard by all–that there be no applause.

Sunday Afternoons of Music continues Dec. 19 with the violinist Elmar Oliveira and pianist Robert Koenig in sonatas of Handel, Beethoven and Walton, as well as various short works. Call 305-271-7150 or go to

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Sun Sep 12, 2010
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