Tuesday 18 June 2013

Devil's Trill talks Shostakovich with the Pacifica Quartet

The Pacifica Quartet (photo: Anthony Parmalee)
It's almost four decades since the death of Dmitri Shostakovich - the Soviet Union's most celebrated and controversial composer - and, while academics continue to argue over his music's value, his stock continues to grow with audiences and musicians alike. The fifteen symphonies sell out concert halls; the cycle of fifteen strings quartets, composed between 1938 and 1974, are one of the great challenges of the repertoire. 2013 sees the release of the third volume of the Pacifica Quartet’s complete cycle of the fifteen quartet. Violinists Simin Ganatra and Sibbi Bernhardssson, violist Masumi Per Rostad and cellist Brandon Vamos make up this ensemble, which hails from Chicago and has gained acclaim for recordings of undervalued repertoire, such as Elliott Carter's String Quartets. The first of two residencies at London’s Wigmore Hall, back in October 2011, coincided with the first release in their recorded cycle for Cedille Records; an auspicious start that heralds a complete recording of these works to place among the best.

“A thing that really surprised us about the cycle – we hadn't played them all until we took [the project] on two years ago – was just how interesting all of the quartets are”, Masumi Per Rostad, violist of the Pacifica Quartet, tells me when I meet him at Wigmore Hall's spacious greenroom. “It thought there would be at least one or two duds in there, from a performance perspective, but I think it's very similar to the Beethoven cycle in that regard, that they're all amazing pieces.”

I wonder about the challenges of presenting these works together: might they present too little contrast over the course of a concert, particularly when it comes to the later quartets?  Not so, Masumi tells me: “I think that from nine through fourteen there's actually a lot of range of character and emotion. It's very easy to think of Shostakovich as bleak and desolate and Siberian and I think that the thing has surprised us about all the quartets is how much range there is.” 

And then there's the problem of extra-musical baggage attached to so much of Shostakovich's music. A great deal of argument about the music has focused on supposed hidden meanings, political messages and personal codes written into the scores. But are the players affected by these theories and hearsay?  “There's a difference when between when one person reads it somewhere versus when someone reads it and mention sit in a rehearsal. It does definitely affect us but it’s kind of a tenuous area to get into, also because so much of what he said is hard to take at face value.”  Masumi reminds me that the quartet are musicians, rather than musicologists, and recalls his experience of studying Beethoven as a student at New York's Juilliard School: “The only thing allowed into the classroom was the score for the string quartets, and you could not mention anything about the Heiligenstadt Testament or anything about deafness. It was just not allowed. It was just the score; I think that's ultimately what Shostakovich left for us – the score – and there are so many interesting stories... but at the end of the day it's us in the rehearsal room with the score.”

Although Shostakovich himself trained as a pianist, he had an acute understanding of writing for stringed instruments. “There's nothing in the quartets that is unplayable,” says Masumi. “Within your individual parts they're not crazily technically difficult but it requires a lot of ensemble technique. There's a lot of exposed intonation, a lot of Haydn-like exposed ensemble issues and I think that's probably for us the most challenging aspect; but he really knows what works.”

Shostakovich composed for some of the finest instrumentalists of his day and remained loyal to particular chamber ensembles for years. The Pacifica Quartet have, in turn, engaged extensively with contemporary composers, particularly when working with student composers at the University of Chicago. “There's nothing like sitting down with a composer and having them remind you that they’re human beings. As a student you’re working through your repertoire and you feel very disconnected from the composer and from the compositional process because you have this score that you get from a library or a bookstore and somehow there’s so many layers or steps in between you and that compositional process. The thing that has been in common with all the composers that we’ve worked with is that they really are human beings and they’re not so uptight. We’re not very often getting comments like ‘that wasn’t quite together’, but it’s more like ‘I was going for this sound world'.”

Working through new works with musicians can also give composers an understanding of what's technically possible, though this can have its pitfalls. “This is always dangerous territory because if you look at the history of performance and composition, pieces were always declared unplayable and then the next group of people come along and they can play them. You don’t want to be that guy that says ‘you know this is unplayable’, but you can say ‘maybe this is not the most idiomatic thing!'”
Recent works by Carter and Easley Blackwood have joined Shostakovich and Mendelssohn in the Pacifica Quartet's discography, but it would be a mistake to assume that merely the novelty of the new and unplayed was what attracted them to their more unusual repertoire. “We have a common idea that there’s great music and there’s less good music and it’s not defined so much by period or genre. It's just that there are pieces that speak to us when we play [them] and sometimes those are off the beaten path and very often they’re in the standard repertoire, so it’s kind of a really wide variety and mix just because we don’t really distinguish that way.”

Volume 3 of the Pacifica Quartet's Shostakovich String Quartety cycle is out now.

Monday 10 June 2013

Violist justifies Cowell egg attack

Violist Natalie Holt has written about her “little act of protest”, a much-reported egg-throwing attack on pop music mega mogul Simon Cowell during Saturday night’s live Britain’s Got Talent final. In a piece for The Guardian, Holt said that her stunt had been motivated by a belief that Cowell “has too much power and influence in the entertainment industry. I also just wanted to make him look a bit silly.” Holt plays with string quartet Raven, an ensemble occupying a position somewhere between the conventional string quartet and cross-over act Bond.

The makers of BGT were quick to scrub Youtube of footage of the incident, which featured Holt grinning while pelting Cowell with eggs. The Telegraph have managed to retain their footage (warning: contains naff cod-operatic singing).