Review: Pacifica transcends changing of the guard with ease

It seems as if it was painless, even without problems.

That cannot have been totally so. When there are changes in personnel that make up an ensemble, such as a string quartet of long standing, the process that takes musicians away and takes others in simply must be jarring. And the change in the Pacifica Quartet, the Indiana University School of Music’s faculty string quartet in residence, was dramatic: two of its long-time members left for other opportunities at one time. Two successors had to be found at one time.

Well, now the ensemble is about a year into its changed membership. We’ve had several opportunities to hear the altered cast in performance. One can report, or at least I can report: all is well.

On listening to the re-formed Pacifica last Friday evening in Auer Hall, I heard a world-class string quartet that is still a world-class string quartet, performing – as it has since I first had the privilege of hearing this remarkable chamber ensemble live or on recordings – at a supreme and distinctive level of quality. The unifying purpose remains. The precision of attack has not weakened. The carefully resolved interpretation is present. The sense of playing as a unit while allowing individual voices to shine through the total weave has been sustained.

Certainly, one misses the familiar elements, now gone: second violinist Sibbi Bernhardssohn and violist Masumi Per Rostad; they were part of the package we came to know. But violinist Austin Hartman and violist Guy Ben-Zioni as added to the remaining first violinist Simin Ganatra and cellist Brandon Vamos, we’ve discovered, have kept the Pacifica a quartet of equally high stature.

That was once again fully noticeable on Friday when the quartet performed Beethoven’s late String Quartet in A Minor, Opus 132, and then – with pianist Emile Naoumoff – Robert Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E-Flat Major, Opus 44.

The Beethoven, one of those unfathomable creations emanating from the interior depths of the composer’s by-then soundless existence, has biographical roots. Beethoven had been gravely ill, even while engaged in writing it. The early movements reflect severe melancholy mirroring his response to the parlous physical condition. And then, Beethoven’s health improved. He changed the content of the quartet, casting away two gloomy movements and replacing them with three totally different in character, one of which he inscribed with the words (translated into English): “Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity by a Convalescent, in the Lydian mode,” the others with music containing a greater joy to express Beethoven’s rebounding spirit.

Musicians take quite a journey moving through the music brought on by these musings. The Pacifica’s journey shifted powerfully from the sad and wistful and subdued to a hymn of reverence and, finally, to a celebration. Traveling along, one heard an emotional sojourn riveting for ears and heart, the composer’s thoughts distilled. The four musicians interconnected for a tour de force close-up of Beethoven’s super-sensitive mind in action.

The very different Schumann Piano Quintet brought Naoumoff, the Pacifica’s faculty colleague from the piano department, to the Steinway. Professor Naoumoff is an incredibly gifted keyboard technician who easily makes the piano his submissive own. And that he surely did on Friday for a score that balances the pianist against the four string players, making each responsible for an equal share of what the music offers; the pianist provides half of the sound output, the string ensemble the other half. Performance becomes a balancing act.

Friday’s four-versus-one quintet balanced, without doubt. Naoumoff, never afraid to set a listener’s ears ringing, kept his sometimes writ-large interpretive inclinations in sync with his string colleagues for a truly engaging, vibrant reading of Schumann at his most engaging and vibrant. The teamwork proved graceful and jubilant, worthy of the jubilant audience response that followed.

All’s well with the remastered Pacifica and with their concert colleague, pianist Naoumoff. That was comforting to hear and good to let you know, if you weren’t there.

By Peter Jacobi H-T Reviewer © HTO 2018

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