Thursday, March 4, 2021

Returning to the concert stage, Pacifica Quartet offers Shostakovich and Fanny Mendelssohn for Ensemble Music Society

 Familiar visitors  to Indianapolis, the Pacifica Quartet on Wednesday helped revive the local concert

Austin Hartman, Mark Holloway, Simin Ganatra, and Brandon Vamos

scene under the auspices of the Ensemble Music Society. Implicitly saluting Women's History Month, a little-known work by Fanny Mendelssohn opened the program, followed by one of the more important pieces among Dmitri Shostakovich's 15 string quartets.

The Pacifica, resting on a quarter-century foundation, continues its residency at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music. The personnel with which it made its reputation in the last decade has changed; since 2017, violist Mark Holloway and second violinist Austin Hartman have upheld the ensemble's reputation alongside two of the original members, first violinist Simin Ganatra and cellist Brandon Vamos.

Out of an abundance of pandemic caution, I caught the performance via live stream. A small audience was present in the concert hall at Indiana History Center. The event marked the Pacifica's first in-person concert since last March, Ganatra gratefully informed the two audiences in post-concert conversation.

To get the special qualities of taking in such a concert remotely out of the way first: It's an adjustment to blend the visual and aural concert experience virtually. The camera work (by CameraMusic) was adroit but necessarily partial to providing visual variety. Besides the three close-up angles (first violin, viola, and second violin and cello), there was a full-frontal view of all four musicians. I preferred that one, despite the slightly obstructed (by equipment) view, so that seeing what everyone was doing matched what I was hearing. 

There were occasional lapses of synchronization between sight and sound, whose technical basis escapes me. Finally, I came away with a few questions about ensemble balance, wondering, for instance,  if electronic projection of the sound through my home computer magnified the viola (especially, but not solely, at the beginning of the Shostakovich quartet's second movement). All in all, I was grateful for the opportunity Ensemble Music and two partner chamber-music societies provided.

On to the music. Fanny Mendelssohn's String Quartet in E-flat appealed to the Pacifica, the first violinist said post-concert, because its lack of a sturdy performance tradition allowed the group to approach it as a new score. Relative lack of advocacy by other ensembles cleared the way for the Pacifica to forge a fresh interpretation.

The serious demeanor of the first movement, underlined by imitated phrases passed around, gave away to some lightening of texture and mood toward the end; it almost seemed too concise. The Allegretto that followed displayed some of the characteristic animation and tidy organization of music by the composer's brother, Felix. But the finale confirms the greater influence of Beethoven, with many free-running passages contrasted with majestic long notes showing an assertive individuality that Fanny was not allowed to develop over a restricted career as short, but not as illustrious, as her brother's. 

The third-movement "Romanze" had a "sighing" cast in the abundance of downward phrases in both melody and accompaniment; it struck me as the most successful movement of the four, reflecting the composer's predilection for song forms. The Pacifica's sensitivity to dynamics was good but somewhat neutralized, I suspect, by the leveling effect of microphones.

Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 3 in F major, op. 73, is a grandiose, effective exhibition of his complex emotional temperament. Its stature is comparable to another much-admired work, No. 8 in C minor, also in five movements. The earlier work was produced after the composer and his nation had passed through the crucible of the Second World War. The composer was well along in his conspicuous career, already marked by having run afoul of the Soviet authorities in the 1930s. In this work, the full technical aplomb of mature Shostakovich is linked to a rich expansiveness throughout.

I like drier renditions of this music, but the Pacifica's more outwardly expressionistic interpretation also suits it. Shostakovich is a composer with a puzzling variety of openness and irony, much light and shadow when it comes to heartfelt anguish set beside full-throated affirmation. Sometimes the affirmation is striated with mockery, as in the Third Quartet's marches.  He was a competent melodist, but in a spikier vein than his older contemporary, Prokofiev. The Pacifica quite evidently loves those melodies, as well as the intensity of mood. 

It may never be settled how much Shostakovich's compositional profile was shaped by repressive circumstances and to what degree what you hear is simply what you get of the "real" man and what he might have produced anyway under less frightening conditions. Tuesday's performance of the Shostakovich F major quartet allowed the mystery of this music to be illuminated, if not settled. The Pacifica, having recorded the whole cycle for Cedille in the past decade with its earlier membership, is entitled to have the way it has staked claims to this body of work fully acknowledged and admired.

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