I discovered the passionate, virtuosic playing of The Pacifica Quartet only early this year which means I am quite late to the game. This ensemble has been accumulating to-die-for critical reviews for years and capped 2009 by bagging a Grammy Award and being named “Ensemble of the Year” by Musical America magazine.
My long delay in taking notice could be that, other than at the University of Chicago, there is no regular chamber music series at a downtown venue. Also, for decades, the major planets in the chamber music’s tiny universe were the Emerson, Guarneri, Juilliard, Tokyo, and Vermeer Quartets. Besides knowing the ranking of America’s “Big Five” symphony orchestras (plus Berlin, London and Vienna), the average music lover may not recognize other fine, top-drawer ensembles.
However, a tectonic shift has rocked the chamber world of late. The Vermeer and Guarneri Quartets disbanded. Thus the time seems right for The Pacifica Quartet to expand its appeal and take its rightful place at the top. Pacifica plays 90 concerts a season, tours Europe three or four times and has bookings out to 2013.
They are already critical darlings. The Times (London) gushed over their “stupendous, breathtaking virtuosity.” The New York Times hailed their “astounding performances” while the local Tribune praised their “astonishing talent, energy and dedication.”
The Pacifica was formed in 1994 though its current four members—Simin Ganatra, violin, Sibbi Bernhardsson, violin, Masumi Per Rostad, viola and Brandon Vamos, cello–have played together for almost a decade. They appear poised to reap the rewards of their musical vision and dedicated commitment.
Such a record of longevity is rare in the chamber music world. Masumi Per Rostad, who joined in 2001, says the failure rate for string quartets is 99.99%, a figure akin to that for restaurants.
Why? In the critical early stages, Rostad notes, “a quartet must figure out how to manage its career.” A quartet is very much like a small business and, without good advice and some business sense, it will flounder and most do.
Rostad also listed other factors impeding success. The difficulty of finding time when all the members can rehearse is one cause. Members have to juggle rehearsal schedules with other playing-and paying-gigs (Pacifica members practice up to 5 hours each day). Members may also not be sure how to react or interact as an ensemble. Rostad estimates that it takes 2-3 years for a group to develop a “defined identity”.
How has Pacifica persevered? Rostad credits receiving sound early advice about repertoire and key business details from Paul Katz of the Cleveland Quartet and David Finckel of the Emerson Quartet. More importantly, their adoption of a “peripatetic model of touring plus teaching plus a variety of repertoire” has enabled the members to feed their musical passion as well as feeding themselves.
Pacifica is the resident quartet at both the University of Illinois (Champaign-Urbana is their home base) and at the University of Chicago. The residencies provide valuable time to develop new repertoire while they teach classes and collect a salary.
Earlier this year, the quartet received its newest honor: being named quartet-in-residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where they will play the entire cycle of 15 Skostakovich Quartets in the upcoming season and the full cycle of Beethoven Quartets during 2011-12.
“Every award or appointment,” Rostad says, “helped us and took us to the next level. One (award) doesn’t stick out since all are integral to our success.”
If you are not familiar with this marvelous quartet, I urge you to catch Pacifica this Tuesday evening, August 3rd, at Ravinia’s Martin Theater. Tickets are available by calling the Ravinia box office at 847/266-5100 or online at www. Ravinia.org.