How absolutely refreshing it was to hear music-making so far beyond “good enough,” “just get through it” or uninspired note making. This sudden lift in the level did not go unnoticed by many in the audience who listened extra attentively then shouted their pleasure and thanks in a manner that truly wedded both sides of the “footlights” with two celebrations of spectacular art from the Pacifica Quartet within less than twenty-four hours.
The first half of the all-Shostakovich program was a marvellous introduction of the skill-sets, discipline and insights of the performers.
In Op. 73, once the slightly unsettled opening was in the books, ensemble took hold never to let up. Violist Masumi Per Rostad and cellist Brandon Vamos—when required to play their lines together—melded into a singular sound that spoke volumes about unity of purpose. The frantic third movement (originally titled “The forces of war unleashed”—the composer withdrew his “program” after the première) was a gut-wrenching exposition of emotion and pain that seared in its awful truth. Following a masterfully understated, always controlled “Adagio” (bringing new meaning to the word “unison”) the finale’s Danse Macabre air and other dances with death—often delineated with perfectly executed spiccati—came to its dark, desolate end. No titles were needed to be drawn into the overarching atmosphere of agony and despair.
In the somewhat more dense Op. 92, the quartet crafted a reading that was led by the composer’s intentions rather than concern or caution for individual sound. With the scratches from close-to-the-bridge effects (“Allegro non troppo”), biting, gritty anger punctuated by unrelenting down bows, and the percussive col legni breaking some moments of calm in the multi-section middle frame, the relative inner peace of the last movement became all the more effective. Rostad’s transitional bars were exemplary as violinist Simin Ganatra’s statements of the jaunty theme—which has more than a passing resemblance to the “Finale” from Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto—took stage. After a terribly frantic episode, everyone present was mightily relieved when the music quietly disappeared into a rare moment of quiet hope.
At noon the next day (relocated to St. John the Evangelist Church—patrons are truly advised to check the website for program updates), a much smaller but devoted audience braved the slight rain and sauna-like sanctuary for a mini-survey of the state of American string quartet writing in the mid-1990s.
Both Elliott Carter and Jennifer Higdon, using wildly different approaches, aptly demonstrated that their compositions were as American as Schubert’s are Viennese. True, many European techniques (from the Bartòk snap to all manner of slides) were in the soundscapes, but were merely the means rather than the end.
While awaiting Roman Borys for our interview nearby this same venue a couple of days back (cross-reference-below), one of the regular patrons informed me that she no longer had any interest in attending orchestra concerts at the National Arts Centre because there was nothing much to see. I hoped she was amongst those present here because the music created such an array of rich visual images that the mind became overwhelmed with sound and inner light.
Carter’s quartet was extremely individualistic (allowing violinist Sibbi Bernhardssohn to more fully demonstrate his considerable skills, not the least of which was soaring to the upper reaches of the E string with confident surety that is exceedingly rare). Many of the one-voice-at-a-time conversations roiled into full fledged arguments, most of which went unresolved. In the far fewer passages where everyone played at once, the intended result was very much as advertised: perfectly not together.
Jennifer Higdon’s Voices began with somewhat similar scrappy intensity, but she used the instruments more as one entity than disparate elements. The performance was nothing short of riveting: the music gradually affected itself, calming its way into our ears, eyes and hearts. One can only imagine/hope what sort of scores these composers might come up with if ever commissioned to do a film. It would take a very talented director indeed to keep his/her artistic vision from being overwhelmed by the craft on the resultant tracks, but, greedily, I can only hope that that day might come.
The encore was a spirited, glissando-rich refreshment: Astor Piazzolla’s Four for Tango. If this is new music, one wonders how the old still survives! Merci mille fois. JWR