I have always loved the Pacifica Quartet, but I have never before listened to them play from five feet away. Last night, sitting in the front row of the Cosentino Winery’s barrel room, I was practically as close to the violist, Masumi Per Rostad, as he was to Brandon Vamos, the cellist who sits next to him; I was nearer to him than he was to either of the violinists, Simin Ganatra and Sibbi Bernhardsson. And this meant that the music—Beethoven’s “Harp” quartet and Shostakovich’s Ninth Quartet (a great pairing of pizzicato-heavy, mutually reinforcing works)—came to life in a way I had never quite experienced, even with this terrific group. I was surrounded by the sound, and as the repeated themes of both pieces ran back and forth across the players, I could actually sense the patterns moving from side to side in space, and not just forward in time.
In this I was lucky, because the Cosentino Winery—a relatively new performance space in the excellent Music in the Vineyards series—did not yet offer the ideal acoustics for an intense concert like this. Those in the back rows, I imagine, were probably troubled by loud laughter drifting in from the tasting room, spurts of water-and-air noise from the cooling systems, and the occasional tinkle of glasses being restored to their shelves. All this can be fixed, I presume, as the winery settles into its concert function. And in any case none of these problems got to me, because I was enveloped in the music: I could hear every dramatically quiet note, every sudden transition from solo voice to vigorous unity, every quiver of vibrato or pluck of pizzicato.
As I listened to the Beethoven quartet played with such intense feeling and understanding (not to mention masterful dynamic control and tonal skill), I decided the performance couldn’t be topped. And then, on the Shostakovich, I changed my mind, because that turned out to be the pinnacle of the evening. I have heard this piece dozens if not hundreds of times, several times played live by the Pacificas themselves, but it has never before spoken to me in so many ways: of Shostakovich’s wit, of his sorrow, of his patient endurance in times of distress, of his affection for all kinds of tonal and dissonant music (including klezmer and jazz), and, especially, of his anxiety, a permeating note throughout this and practically every other chamber piece of his. In the Pacifica Quartet’s performance, all these disparate things came together as if they were woven from a single thread—a thread that went back and forth among the players and looped around me as well, holding me spellbound in its startling, moving embrace.
The Pacificas are regulars at Music in the Vineyards, and many of the audience members in the packed room seem to know them personally, or at least know a lot about them. This, too, added to the intimacy of the occasion and gave it a warmth that is rarely found in larger concert settings. It was a funny feeling, the sense that I was in the midst of a Pacifica-loving crowd and at the same time alone with the musicians, smack in the center of the music. And it was a good feeling, in both respects.