Worldwide Sound: Pacifica Quartet

Meaghan Duncan

On a particularly chilly Friday night in February, the strains of expertly performed Beethoven could be heard emanating from the chapel, which served as a warm and inviting location for the Pacifica Quartet’s concert.

Comprised of, not surprisingly, four members, the Pacifica Quartet hails from the West Coast, where the musicians initially met and derived their name, a tribute to the Pacific Ocean. First violinist Simin Ganatra, cellist Brandon Vamos and violinist Sibbi Bernhardsson all played together as teenagers, and later Bernhardsson introduced violist Masumi Per Rostad to the group in 1994.

The Quartet, who has performed in Chicago, New York City, California, Wisconsin and throughout Europe and Japan, has released 4 CDs on Cedille Records and been the recipients of numerous prestigious distinctions. Most recently they became only the second chamber music ensemble ever to be awarded an Avery Fisher Career Grant.

Their Colgate performance included selections from: Beethoven, specifically “Quartet in A Major,” “Op. 18, No. 5, “Elliott Carter, Quartet No. 5” and Bedrich Smetana, “Quartet No. 1 in E minor.”

The Quartet, though opening with a more traditional piece, was relatively a-typical in appearance, looking relatively young in comparison to stereotypical older string musicians. This youth was echoed in their choice to play a quartet by a modern composer for their second selection. Before playing the Elliott Carter quartet, the musicians gave the audience a brief description of the composer himself and more specific details to note about the song itself throughout their performance.

This more didactic element enriched the experience of attending the concert, as it provided helpful information of which most of the audience as probably unaware. During performances such as these, which can be tedious since classical pieces are often comprised of many sections, it is very helpful to have certain unique characteristics to observe.

The three striking features that were explicitly mentioned were the sparseness of the use of instruments, the conversational sound and the division of a single beat. One interesting consequence of these features was that the musicians were challenged to learn how to play perfectly out of sync with each other, rather than the opposite, as they usually did.

Their final quartet by Smetana also had a conversational tone, similar to the piece by Carter. This selection was meant to be a representation of Smetana’s life, each movement conveying a different emotion milestone in the 19th century composer’s existence.

The concert was beautifully performed, though markedly low in student attendance. Most of the audience appeared to be comprised of older individuals, which is perhaps either a poor reflection on the amount of publicity for the event or the interestedness of the younger generation in this type of music. While string quartets are likely not the favored genre of most Colgate students, the Pacifica Quartet played very well and displayed a truly impressive mastery of their craft.