Thursday, April 26, 2018

Ensemble Music brings a distinguished season to an end with Pacifica Quartet, plus an estimable singer

The new Pacifica: Austin Hartman, Guy Ben-Ziony, Simin Ganatra, Brandon Vamos.
Making its first appearance under Ensemble Music Society auspices since 2011, the Pacifica Quartet returned to the venerable series Wednesday with half its personnel different from that with which it established itself.

Austin Hartman, formerly of the University of Indianapolis and its fledgling string quartet, is now the Pacifica's second violinist, and Guy Ben-Ziony has replaced Masumi Per Rostad as violist. Founders Simin Ganatra and Brandon Vamos continue to anchor the ensemble as first violinist and cellist, respectively. At the Indiana History Center, the new group presented two works the former personnel recorded for the Chicago-based Cedille label: Shostakovich's Quartet No. 3 in F major and Schumann's Quartet in A minor.

Mitzi Westra, close to ideal as "Il Tramonto" interpreter
A special treat came with the program's centerpiece, "Il Tramonto" by Ottorino Respighi, a 20th-century Italian best-known for his colorful symphonic poems. Mitzi Westra, a mezzo-soprano of exquisite taste, polish and expressive depth who is well-known around town, was featured in the string-quartet-plus-singer Italian setting of Percy Bysshe Shelley's florid lament, "The Sunset."

The lugubrious poem unfolds with an almost leisurely sense of doom. That atmosphere is fully engaged by Respighi's music, which meets the poem's pivotal event — a young lover's death — on its own terms. Musically, the shock registers, and Shelley, who was probably not an atheist but widely taken for one, warns: "Let none believe that God in mercy gave that stroke." The poem goes on to trace the bereft woman's restrained grieving until the end. Respighi's score mirrors that restraint, with the lady's musings about the meaning of death in love's service tenderly reflected.

The line quoted above brings to the fore the only operatic swelling in the score, to which Westra was fully equal. The music then subsides as the poem traces the woman's physical decline, implying that her soul becomes ennobled at the same time. Evocation of Italian art song precedes her final declaration of the peace she would like as her epitaph. Westra's singing, clearly and plaintively phrased, was neatly complemented by the Pacifica Quartet; slight modifications of tempo were unified, and before the work's latter half, a quartet interlude, with a searing cello melody, achieved a concise eloquence equal to the singer's.

The Pacifica has maintained its incisive, well-coordinated signature with the two new members. But the Schumann performance also indicated the Pacifica doesn't shortchange subtlety. The exalted slow movement of op. 41, no. 1, displayed well-managed shifts in dynamics and raised the temperature with intense exchanges between second violin and viola. Ensemble unity stayed at the highest level with the tossing around of the finale's skittering phrases, always articulated the same way for the sake of consistency. The brief silence before the startling "musette" episode near the end was well-timed.

Introduced from the stage by Vamos with particular emphasis on the unpublished titles the composer gave to each of the five movements, Shostakovich's Quartet No. 3 (1946) can be properly understood as a "war quartet." A programmatic interpretation clearly suits the Pacifica's vigorous manner. Even the playful first movement, once a quasi-fugal episode gets under way, has its trenchant moments. Indeed, the concert's only exception to the Pacifica's usual clarity of texture came near the end of this Allegretto, which sounded a bit frayed and overblown.

Foreboding (though seen by the composer in hindsight) comes into view in the second movement. I liked how Pacifica seemed to tug at the material, as though Shostakovich were delicately but insistently hammering out a warning. He indeed had a hammer (as the folk song says), and he uses it with harsh vigor in the third movement. Ben-Ziony's viola waxed lyrical briefly, but with a martial edge. The "requiem" movement that followed gave further opportunity to admire the violist's plangent tone, especially in a solo punctuated by the cello.

The finale took the breath away, not only at the end, but in intermittent gasps as it made its exhausted progress. The questioning of war's value implied by the composer's purported title — "The eternal question: Why? And for what?" — featured evocations of martial music that the Pacifica daringly rendered as deliberately pointless. They brought this off without in fact sounding pointless — sort of like how a great actor can play a boring person and make the portrayal fascinating.