Dallas — Followers of all things string quartet consider the Pacifica Quartet to be one of the best touring today. When they were recently presented by Dallas Chamber Music Society at Caruth Auditorium on the campus of Southern Methodist University, it was not a surprise to see the usually scant crowd greatly enlarged and some distinguished musicians in attendance.
In some ways, it was a marvelous concert. For one thing, they included a 20th century work, Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 2. A work by a living composer would have been better, but the Shostakovich is rarely performed, so it was a welcome addition to a program of the usual Haydn and Beethoven.
Don’t get me wrong here—I love the entire canon of Haydn and Beethoven string quartets—but they certainly don’t lack exposure. Also, it is my opinion that a work by a living composer should grace all of the programs given by such gifted and generally renowned groups.
The Pacifica Quartet is made up of violinists Simin Ganatra and Austin Hartman, violist Mark Holloway and cellist Brandon Vamos. All four are distinguished artists outside of their membership in the quartet. They all have numerous prestigious competition accolades individually as well as those garnered as an ensemble. One mark of their excellence is the fact they have been the quartet-in-residence, as well as teaching faculty members at Indiana University’s prestigious Jacobs School of Music since March 2012.
Overall, this was a carefully prepared performance that showed a unified interpretation of widely different musical styles and eras. They also played a wide variety of dynamics from loud, without overplaying, to almost soft to the point of near inaudibly. Their blend and ensemble were also excellent. What was unexpected in such an accomplished ensemble was their troubles with intonation. At intermission, this was the entire buzz.
Haydn, who many credit with the invention of the string quartet, was represented with his String Quartet in G major, Op. 76, No. 1. Most composers struggle to write one string quartet, but Haydn turned out groups of such works as a set of siblings. For example, his highly regarded Op. 76, represented here, consists of six full-length multi-movement works. In fact, the entire set of Op. 76 is among the composer’s most highly regarded compositions.
Their performance of Haydn’s quartet brought out both its prescience of Beethoven and Haydn’s fondness for country dances. They used the introduction to the first movement to set up its alla breve exposition in G major. They captured the chorale feeling of the slow movement. The minuet is hardly the standard of the time. It looks forward to the scherzo. The Pacifica took it at the requested quick tempo, slowing down for the middle section. They also caught the darker elements of the last movement, which switches from major to minor except for the coda.
The Shostakovich quartet was written in 1944 as the war was coming to a close and the horrors of the Nazi regime were just being exposed. It is thus conflicted: dark vs. melodic, consonant vs. dissonant, strident vs. muted. It is also rarely performed because of its many difficulties, technically as well as musically.
The Pacifica managed to make sense of it for those who listened carefully. Some were put off by its brutality. Except for the more reserved Waltz, the quartet added drive to the sometimes-drastic harmonic changes, making them feel inevitable rather than there for shock value.
Beethoven’s Quartet in C major, Op. 59, No. 3, brought the concert to a less challenging close. In fact, it is one of the composer’s most self-affirming works. The Pacifica was at its best with this work. They caught the unstable feel of the introduction of the opening and also the rapid nonstop romp of the finale.
They also celebrated the home key of C-major every time it arrived. In the Menuetto Grazioso, they had some fun with the contrasting Trio. Except for the inexcusable intonation problems, this would have been a satisfying concert.