Coping with crisisWhat a grand way to celebrate eighty years (to the day!) of bringing the best of chamber music performances to North Carolina’s capital city: bring back the Pacifica Quartet for a live concert during these pandemic days of “virtual” music-making watched and heard via a computer.

Of course, concessions to the realities of COVID-19 were in place: a limited number in the audience (necessitating two back-to-back performances for separate audiences); an outdoor venue rather than a closed-space concert hall; and shortening the program for the circumstances. This all worked well. The venue was the Rotary Shelter in Cary’s Ritter Park. The quartet played from the center of the space, the audience sitting properly separated at assigned tables arranged around the covered shelter. The acoustics were surprisingly good, due to the arched wooden ceiling. In a way, this arrangement was close to sitting onstage with the artists. The brilliant blue of the sky and the varied greens of the surrounding foliage, along with the occasional scampering squirrels, only added visual color to ornament the varied colors of sound made from the strings.

This was the Pacifica Quartet’s fourth appearance in Raleigh on a CMR (and its earlier incarnation, the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild) concert series. (Bios of violinists Simin Ganatra and Austin Hartman, violist Mark Holloway, and cellist Brandon Vamos are here.) Of perhaps more significance was that this was only the second “live” concert that they have given since mid-March 2020, which made it a special joy for the group as well as for those who were also eager for such delights to return to their lives. As Hartman remarked during the break between the two performances, “We have really missed playing for a live audience; it truly makes a difference.”

And what a difference! Just under two months ago, I reviewed a streamed concert by this group which had distortions in the sound pickups. Today, we heard the music as it was intended to be heard. Three quartets comprised the program: the 1929 Quartet in G by Florence Price, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel’s 1834 Quartet in E-flat, and the 2nd Quartet, Op. 92 (in F), on Kabardinian Themes, by Sergey/Sergei* Prokofiev.

Price’s quartet is in only two movements. The opening Allegro was highlighted not only by the individual solo lines from each artist, but by the delicious molding of the ritornello phrase which begins the work and especially by their collective rubatos which showed how finely attuned they are to each other. (As the movement concluded, it was obvious that Beethoven was not the last composer to have problems ending a composition, as Price adds one possible ending to another.) The second and final movement Andante moderato begins almost lullaby-esque in its lilting phrases. Its second section brought hints of Grieg’s Peer Gynt mountain-king’s hall, as well as a masterfully-played solo by Holloway. The pianissimo final cadence, besides proving that every major work does not have to end with a bang, was so perfectly and gently played that the audience showed its appreciation by waiting a few seconds before applauding, not wanting to interrupt the mood.

The Pacifica’s reading of Fanny Hensel’s (née Mendelssohn) quartet was quintessential. Their playing was delicate when delicacy was just right, as in the opening Adagio’s quieter sections; vigorous when vigor is just right, as in the 2nd movement Allegretto’s fugal section; lyrical when lyricism is just right, as in the 3rd movement Romanze; and gloriously vivacious in the virtuostic final Allegro molto vivace. The unison-in-octaves concluding passage could not have been better as the Pacifica’s collective “pedal-to-the-metal” bravura reading makes one all the more sad that the composer herself heard the work performed only once during her lifetime, and that not in public (because she was a woman, and women weren’t supposed to be composers).

The concert closed with Prokofiev’s folk-tune-adorned 1941 quartet. Each movement uses song and/or dance melodies from Kabardinian and Balkar ethnic populations in central Asia where the composer had been sent for safety during the early years of WW II. Distinctly Prokofiev, but colored by the sometimes-jagged dance rhythms with which the opening Allegro sostenuto pulsated. With plucked strings imitating some of the region’s folk instruments, the following Adagio featured Ganatra and Vamos’ octave melodies soaring through Hartman and Holloway’s sensitive accompanying voices. The closing Allegro, featuring Vamos’ bravura cello cadenza and resonant pizzicato from the full ensemble, brought the audience to its feet in a well-deserved ovation.

*A common convention now is to use y in Russian names and i in Polish and Ukrainian ones when transliterating the Cyrillic й to the Roman alphabet. (Thanks to Elizabeth and Joe Kahn, who wrote the program notes for this concert.)

Bravo to Chamber Music Raleigh for keeping the chamber music faith going as they reached this 80th anniversary milestone, and to the Pacifica Quartet for providing the musical champagne. Here’s to the next 80!