Pacifica Perfection

It’s no secret that the Pacifica Quartet is my favorite string quartet in the world, and this means I take every opportunity to see and hear them play. Yet as their September 30 date at Rockefeller University approached, I had my doubts. I had been flat on my back with a bad cold for the better part of a week, and even though I was starting to recover, venturing out to the far eastern realms of uptown Manhattan did not seem advisable. But then I saw the program—Mendelssohn’s Quartet in E Minor, Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Quartet, and (with pianist Orion Weiss) Schumann’s Piano Quintet—and I was a goner. For these three pieces, I would have overcome pneumonia.

As it turned out, a little cough suppressant saw me through, and the concert was, if anything, even better than I could have imagined. I have a recording of the Pacificas playing the complete Mendelssohn quartets, and I have always wondered how they manage to infuse so much life, strength, and variety into pieces that in other hands sometimes reek of sickly-sweet Romanticism. Hearing them live doesn’t exactly provide an answer to this—it remains, in other words, an alluring mystery—but it does make the point even more clearly. The Mendelssohn was a triumph. And then to have it followed immediately by the Shostakovich, which is one of the scariest, eeriest, most unusual things he ever wrote—what an intense pleasure that was! “How many times have you heard us play this?” I was asked afterward by Masumi Per Rostad, the great violist who is featured in this quartet dedicated to a violist. I estimated five or six times (some of them in full cycles, some on mixed programs), but assured Masumi that I could happily hear them do it every week.  “Happily” might not be exactly the right word for the pleasure Shostakovich brings—it is always mixed with sorrow, pain, regret, and a host of other melancholy feelings—but whatever it is, the Pacificas always know how to deliver it.

As for the Schumann, I have loved it ever since I heard it as the setting for Mark Morris’s marvelous dance V, which does full justice to it. But getting to hear Weiss and the Pacifica Quartet perform their magic on it was thrilling in a different way. The quiet parts were incredibly intimate, and the vigorous moments of swinging, dance-worthy rhythm were enough to make us all want to leap out of our seats.  (I saw Simin Ganatra, the amazing first violinist, sponstaneously tapping both her feet at once during an exciting passage toward the end, and she was simply echoing what we were all feeling.) I had forgotten I ever had a cold:  the music itself had given me back my health.

And even the journey out to this strange new concert venue turned out to be exciting, in its own way. The Peggy Rockefeller concert series, of which this Pacifica evening was a part, takes place in the Caspary Auditorium, a small-scale, acoustically delightful, geodesically-shaped room that is the perfect setting for chamber music. The only real oddity is that the hall has no wings: the performers had to enter and leave by the same steep staircase that led us to our seats in the audience, which meant that at the end we had to remain seated until they were safely offstage. But even this added to the sense of collective pleasure, making us all feel as if we were at some slightly oversized and rather remarkable house concert, informally gathered together (though with perfect sightlines) to see and hear the finest, best played, and most restorative music available.




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