A retooled Pacifica Quartet brings the same top artistry to Salt Lake City

Thu Sep 19, 2019 at 11:07 am
By Edward Reichel
The Pacifica Quartet performed Wednesday night, presented by the Chamber Music Society of Salt Lake City.

The Chamber Music Society of Salt Lake City opened its season Wednesday night in Libby Gardner Concert Hall with a welcome return visit by the Pacifica Quartet. The ensemble has been a frequent guest here over the years, and each time they’ve engaged their audience with their perceptive playing and well-chosen programs.

Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, the Pacifica has gone through personnel changes in recent years and the group that played Wednesday hasn’t been seen here yet. Original members first violinist Simin Ganatra and cellist Brandon Vamos remain; filling out the second violin and viola positions now are Austin Hartman and Mark Holloway, respectively. 

But even with a new lineup, the sound is still unmistakably theirs—characterized by textured playing and keen interpretive skills. And one can unequivocally say they’re still at the top of their game. 

On Wednesday the group treated its audience with finely crafted readings of Shostakovich and Mendelssohn, composers whose complete quartets the group has recorded.

Shostakovich’s Second Quartet in A major, written in 1944, contains an interesting mix of Russian folk-like tunes, a traditional harmonic palette and sophisticated writing. It’s a rather subdued work that doesn’t have the same extremes of emotions found in the composer’s later quartets, but it does possess hints of his more mature style. 

The players gave a captivating account that captured the character of the work well. The first movement is repetitive, wavering between imitative folk dance rhythms and more dramatic, frenzied outbursts. The quartet played it with flair, underscoring the shifting moods of this movement with assured command.

The second movement opens with a plaintive violin recitative that sets up the following somber romance. Ganatra played the solo with sensitive expression, supported by a softly intoned accompaniment by her colleagues. This mood carries over into the romance, although there is a strong crescendo that leads into a darkly dramatic section, before once again reprising the opening’s quiet resignation.

The following waltz, played with mutes, is nothing like the grotesque scherzos that Shostakovich excels at in his later works, but the players conveyed the otherworldly feel, instilling their playing with intensity and restless energy. The theme-and-variations finale returns to the Russian-flavored tone of the opening movement, but is generally darker in character. Shostakovich explores every conceivable transformation of the theme in an extensive set of variations. 

The foursome gave a cohesive account of this expansive and at times rambling movement, Indeed throughout, the Pacifica members exhibited wonderfully crafted playing that allowed the music to flow seamlessly from one section to another.

In stark contrast to the Shostakovich, Mendelssohn’s Quartet in D major, Op. 44, no. 1, is a bright, ebullient piece that evokes Haydn in its sunny, optimistic disposition. The Pacifica played the opening movement with a light touch and allowed the themes to flow and unfold naturally. Their tempo was well-chosen and they infused their effusive reading with a youthfulness that fit the music perfectly.

The charm of the second movement minuet was performed with neat phrasing. The Andante that follows has the feel of a relaxing stroll in a park on a sunny Sunday morning, nicely captured with subtle inflections. The closing presto is a delightful romp and the Pacifica gave a vibrant account of this movement that nevertheless brought out the lyricism.

The program opened with George Walker’s Lyric. Originally a part of his first quartet, it also works well as an independent piece. The music is written in a very traditional harmonic language. It’s not imitative, but Walker, who was only 24 when he wrote it, already hints at how he’ll develop as a mature composer. The writing is assured and the Pacifica captured the depth of expression with a sensitive account.   

The Chamber Music Society of Salt Lake City presents violinist Rachel Barton Pine and harpsichordist Jory Vinikour in Bach sonatas 7:30 p.m. October 10 in Libby Gardner Concert Hall. cmsofslc.org

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