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The Asheville Chamber Music 2005-06 series wound up on Friday night, April 7, with a stellar performance by the world-renowned Pacifica Quartet. The crowded Unitarian Universalist Church of Asheville was teeming with excitement as the young players – Simin Ganatra and Sibbi Bernhardsson, violins, Masumi Per Rostad, viola, and Brandon Vamos, cello – made their way to the rather dimly lit platform. Like members of many great quartets, each could have won many individual accolades and had productive solo careers, but they chose instead to abandon their egos and perform the vast quartet repertoire that demands this type of dedication. Given the talent of these musicians, it came as no surprise that their program for this evening was extremely varied and challenging.
Felix Mendelssohn is somewhat of a beacon in the field of chamber music, guiding posterity to explore new ideas and to be innovative without forgetting the predecessors who brought music to where it is. His style is an amalgamation of old and new, and the first selection on the program, the String Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 12, is a perfect example of this combination. The first movement, a romantic gem, was given an abundantly poetic reading, bringing the colors of spring to mind. The fiery second movement was brought to life with rhythmic accuracy and symbiotic exactness. The group really demonstrated their youthfulness and charm in the feisty dance. The piece was rounded off with a naturalness that was surprising. A complete lack of pretension gave Mendelssohn a naked quality, and the Pacifica's warm, expressive tone permeated the atmosphere.
The next selection was by 20th-century composer Leos Janácek. His String Quartet No. 2, "Lettres Intime," was given a light-hearted introduction by Per Rostad who told the audience of the composer's unreciprocated love for a damsel nearly forty years younger. One should note that this fair maid was also married. Nevertheless, Janácek poured out his romantic soul to her in the form of this quartet. The program notes contained a quote by him regarding this piece that bears repeating. He said, "The feeling is often so powerful that it even overwhelms the music. Love is vast and mighty, but composition is weak. Thus, I wish that my work could be as strong as my love." Pacifica was in tune with the theme of the piece and especially highlighted the artistic frustration that Janácek felt. It seemed like bursts of violence in the final movement. One could imagine the composer huddled over his writing desk, furiously trying to capture his emotion, and then, in utter despair, slamming his pen down and ranting at himself for his obvious inabilities. Luckily, he chose to include these feelings in the piece. Pacifica recognized the autobiographical nature and accented it. With near perfect unison, the ensemble tied together the mottled elements of the work and wove a tapestry containing love, anger, beauty, darkness, and light.
I can think of only one word to describe the performance of Tchaikovsky's String Quartet in D Major, Op. 11 – cantabile. It was as if there were four voices on the stage rather than four string instruments. This reviewer was left breathless by this feat. The utter perfection of the re-creation of the folk song and the way it is worked into the overall reading was imaginative and vivid. Actually, a vocal quartet would be hard pressed to sing it any better. The finale moved forward with vigor and precision, ending with a vibrant outbreak of notes. Tchaikovsky, the master of melody, was seen in full radiant light. His message in this work may have been different for everyone, but it was quite evident that no one was left unaffected. One thing is certain, however: whatever the overall message may be, there is beauty to be enjoyed in this life. Pacifica made this transcendental declaration with passion, and they deserved all the gratitude the audience could muster. It is usually easy for one to say "the violin was especially vibrant" or "the cellist held the line perfectly," but no one gets the game ball in this performance, for this was strictly a team effort. Look out Emerson and Juilliard, there's a new kid on the block, and Pacifica is here to stay!