Review: Pacifica Quartet makes a powerful return to Aspen

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times

On a weekend that featured two soloists who are audience favorites at the Aspen Music Festival, the return of the Pacifica Quartet provided the most riveting performance. The quartet, which last played here 19 years ago as students in the Aspen Music Festival’s school, took Harris Hall by storm Saturday evening with vivid performances of two Shostakovich Quartets and a thorny but ultimately rewarding quartet by Schnittke, once a student of Shostakovich’s.

The first thing that strikes a listener about the Pacifica is its sound. Each instrument has an individual personality, uncannily tuned to one another to blend seamlessly. At times the four musicians can sound as full as a string orchestra. Intonation is never a problem. Neither is emotional impact. Passion seems to be as critical as intonation for these guys.

First violin Simin Ganatra can winnow down her rich, robust timbre into a slender caress in sweeter moments, go all velvety in softer sections and harness it into as powerful and potent a tone as any quartet leader when the music calls for it. She has the stage presence of a solo performer, as demonstrated by the Shostakovich Quartet No. 2 in A major, its first three movements a quasi-concerto for violin and string trio. She can’t sit still; her body moves with the music, its intention clearly reflected on her face.

The finale of that quartet finally tosses the ball around to reveal second violin Sibbi Bernhardsson’s silvery sound, which also can blend with Ganatra’s so they come off like a single violin playing harmony with itself. Then violist Masumi Per Rostad, who has been with the quartet since 2001, emerges from the rich texture to carry the ball with slithery moves. Cellist Brandon Vamos provides a solid foundation but also gets his instrument to sing with a distinctive tone.

The Schnittke Quartet No. 3 from 1983 starts and ends with a brief quote from the 16th-century monk and composer Orlando de Lassus, rendered with a glassy lack of vibrato. Recurring like Mendelssohn’s references to the “Dresden Amen” in his “Reformation” symphony, it offers an icy-cool respite from Schnittke’s relentless dissonance. Played with the kind of intensity and fieriness this quartet thrives upon, the music grabs us with its power, especially as the long central scherzo, in fast tempo, develops into a shattering climax. The quartet treated the two slow movements that surround it as uncertain prelude and wistful postlude.

The capper was Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 9 in E-flat major, among the often bitter and sardonic composer’s more lyrical chamber music. The interplay of textures and rhythms revolved like a kaleidoscope in the five connected movements, and the third-cousin reference to the galloping rhythm from Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” took on a sly wink as it peppered the finale. The allegretto pizzicato from Bartok’s Quartet No. 4 made a delicious encore.

Sunday’s Festival Orchestra concert, led by Swiss conductor Thierry Fischer (currently music director of the Utah Symphony), offered a grab-bag of Tchaikovsky, Ravel and a U.S. premiere from the Australian composer Brett Dean. All of it was good, at least as far as we could hear in the rain-interrupted performance. The rain was loud enough that Fischer and Robert McDuffie, the soloist in the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, called a halt in the midst of the slow movement. After a short break, they moved on to the finale.

Too bad, because McDuffie was on form, making the music come to life with vigorous rhythmic bite and apt phrasing in passages from slow to quick. McDuffie’s playing was fresh and vital throughout, and Fischer had the orchestra on the same page.

Dean’s music, a collection of three pieces written in 2001, 2003 and 2006 as memorials for public tragedies, relies on many delicate and quiet moments. It was difficult to get a complete picture of it against the rain. A delay of five minutes before the third piece helped as the rain lightened up, but the precipitation didn’t stop until the very end of Ravel’s “La Valse,” which concluded the afternoon. Fischer got the orchestra to dig deeply into that one in what was a fine performance.

The attraction for Friday evening’s Chamber Orchestra program was Joyce Yang’s lively approach to the Grieg Piano Concerto, conductor Osmo Vanska leading a dry-eyed approach that minimized sentimentality and emphasized gracefulness. For her part, Yang delivered unmannered playing that kept the highly familiar music from cloying.

The program opened with “Rhapsodies,” a 2008 piece by composer-in-residence Steven Stucky that makes birdsong, throbbing strings, fleshy brass utterances and busy percussion flourishes into a series of highly enjoyable episodes. The closing work, Danish composer Nielsen’s heart-on-sleeve Symphony No. 1 in G minor, made a nice mirror to the Norwegian Grieg, this time letting the emotions come pouring out.

Not to miss in the coming days

Unusual pairings mark compelling programs tonight. Schoenberg’s lush, opulent and completely tonal string octet “Verklarte Nacht” pairs intriguingly with “Der Cornet,” a song cycle by the Swiss composer Frank Martin that uses atonality and simple triads with equal abandon. Robert Spano conducts, with the soprano Monica Groop singing. Jeremy Denk’s piano recital today adds Ives’ ruggedly eclectic “Concord” Sonata to a full traversal of J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.” And on Friday night, cellist Lynn Harrell plays a new concerto by Augusta Read Thomas with the Chamber Orchestra.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 20 years. His reviews appear twice a week in the Aspen Times.