Last night the Pacifica Quartet of violinists Simin Ganatra and Sibbi Bernhardsson, violist Masumi Per Rostad, and cellist Brandon Vamos returned to Herbst Theater to give their fifth recital under the auspices of San Francisco Performances (SFP). They are currently based at Indiana University, where they are quartet-in-residence at the Jacobs School of Music; but their touring schedule is an extensive one covering the United States, Europe, Asia, and Australia. In addition, two of their previous SFP engagements included guest artists: clarinetist and composer Jörg Widmann in 2011 and pianist Marc-André Hamelin in 2013.
Last night’s program featured the West Coast premiere of Shulamit Ran’s third string quartet, jointly commissioned for Pacifica by SFP and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, which hosted the world premiere of the composition in New York. However, this brand-new music was framed by highly personable accounts of two of the most familiar composers in the chamber music repertoire. The program began with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 590 quartet in F major and concluded with the second of Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 44 quartets, written in the key of E minor.
Beginning with Mozart almost feels like a routine way to open a string quartet concert, but there was nothing routine about last night’s performance. The quartet is the last one that Mozart wrote, the third of a planned set of six quartets to be dedicated to King Frederick William II of Prussia in the hope of being rewarded with a commission. K. 590 was completed in 1790; and, while Mozart was in bad financial straits, he probably did not know that he had about a year left to live. To the contrary, the music is consistently upbeat and playful, almost as if the composer were looking back on the pleasures of playing in a string quartet with his friend Joseph Haydn.
Indeed, from the very beginning Mozart seems to be acknowledging devices that he most likely picked up from Haydn. The most striking of these is the rhetorical use of silence, which punctuates the opening gesture of the quartet and continues to poke at the listener over the course of all four movements. In addition the Menuetto is another example of Mozart playing with uncertainty in establishing rhythm, a trick he picked up in his youth but also admired in Haydn’s approaches.
In this context Pacifica provided a thoroughly engaging account. Attentiveness to both abrupt and subtle shifts in dynamics did much to keep the attentive listener always alert to what would happen next. There was no sense of this being “twilight” music. Rather, their approach seemed almost to celebrate that joy that must have come from Mozart’s friendship with Haydn; and that pervasive joy readily spilled off of the Herbst stage to diffuse into the entire audience. The result was a delightful reminder of how much inventive originality can be found when Mozart speaks to us, even over a distance of more than two centuries.
Similar positive sentiments exuded from Pacifica’s approach to Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn could be far more intense than Mozart when it came to his disposition of energy, particularly when a minor key was involved. While Mendelssohn was hardly a man of the “machine age,” there is a ferocious dynamism to his allegro writing; and one almost needs to stand back from him when he unleashes the Presto agitato of the final movement of this E minor quartet. Fortunately, Pacifica had a keen sense of how to modulate all of this energy, making sure that those of us on audience side took this to be a performance of music, rather the sort of inchoate whirlwind that depicts the Looney Tunes Tasmanian Devil.
Ran’s quartet, on the other hand, involved a darker approach to such energy. She gave the piece the title “Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory;” and it was inspired by the work of the artist Felix Nussbaum, who was executed in in Auschwitz at the age of 39 in August of 1944. Ran herself was born in Tel Aviv in October of 1949, a little more than a year after the State of Israel was officially declared. The very idea of a “Jewish State” was to be a place of refuge from any hostile government that chose to persecute Jews. Thus, while Ram never had personal experience of Nazi persecution and the consequent extermination efforts, that recent memory was an indelible constituent of the culture into which she was born.
Nevertheless, it is unclear how close she could get to Nussbaum’s work (an example of which is shown above) or to his personal obsession that kept him working, even in Auschwitz and practically up to when he was sent to his death. The result is a relatively abstract musical composition, which draws upon several familiar tropes to evoke the tragedy of this artist’s life. However, there still seems to be more expressive intensity in the title of the composition and the text fragments assigned to each of the quartet’s four movements than there is in the music itself. Nevertheless, it was clear that Pacifica was passionately dedicated to giving this music its due account; but, when compared with the works of many of those composers with first-hand experiences of the Nazis, Ram’s quartet seems to have suffered from too much of an intellectual detachment.
Far less detached was Pacifica’s encore selection. They wanted to conclude the evening by playing something to honor Ruth Felt for all the work she had put in to SFP. They chose a movement from another “last quartet,” Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 135 in F major. They played the Lento assai, cantante e tranquillo (third) movement. This amounts to a relatively straightforward theme subjected to a few far-from-straightforward variations, yet Pacifica knew exactly how to keep the spirit of that theme flowing, even when the variations were at their most elaborate. The result was a thank-you gesture marked by both superb musicianship and heartfelt interpretation.