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Pacifica Quartet in offbeat venue does Shostakovich proud

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Stuck right in the middle of L.A.’s West Adams district lies a verdant, five-acre oasis, in the middle of which stands something called the William Andrews Clark, Jr. Memorial Library.

Clark, a Montana copper mining heir, is worth recalling for two reasons. First,  he founded the Los Angeles Philharmonic 95 years ago. Second, he was a major book collector who donated this gem-like Italianate private library and its contents to UCLA.

(UCLA's Clark Library. Credit: UCLA)

But in addition to its two reading rooms, the Clark contains a perfect 100-seat concert hall which has been hosting chamber music concerts to a highly-selective (tickets are chosen by lottery) clientele for 20 years.

Sunday, I discovered just how perfect a concert that perfect auditorium could contain when the Pacifica Quartet played 90 minutes of Shostakovich there.

The quartet, currently based at Indiana University, was founded in Los Angeles 20 years ago, so the concert was a kind of homecoming.  Of course,  professional string quartets tend to be extraordinary ensembles — it’s the nature of the game.  But this was the most extraordinary quartet playing I’ve heard in this century. And it was accomplished in performance of some of the most difficult quartet repertoire — four of the 15 quartets that Dmitri Shostakovich completed before his death in 1976.

What the Pacifica did was make this tormented, complex and emotionally devastating music completely comprehensible, transparent, even utterly enjoyable.  I don’t recall any other group accomplishing this with these works of this titanic and tortured composer. I wouldn’t even have thought it possible.

Simin Ganatra, the first violinist, seemed of the four to be deepest into this mighty music, urging her companions along with facial gestures, sharp head nods that churned her long black hair, and even an occasional raised, dancing foot. But the quartet was truly a unity, a great young ensemble at the top of its form — a perfect musical organism.  

There is sorrow in all music, but that of Dmitri Shostakovich has much more than its fair share. His quartets contain the largest proportion of that sadness in all his work. For half of his career, he was at the complete mercy of the tyrant Josef Stalin and his Communist Party hacks.

There were times when he slept outside his apartment by the elevator, so that his anticipated arrest would not wake up his family. There were moments when he had to get down on his knees and apologize for having written some of the greatest music of our times. Then again, he had to write officially simple-minded music for the party that persecuted him, even had to join official condemnations of musicians he respected — like Stravinsky.

(Shostakovich, 1942. Image: Office of War Information)

All of his despair and travail, defeat and depression, he somehow turned into great and unique music. The Pacifica performed works that date from after the death of Stalin, when the composer could finally say what he wanted to say, when he wanted to say it. So there is a magnificent cutting loose here: these four quartets include raging dissonances along with poignant quotes from works still suppressed, ancient dance forms, winsome love songs.

The fifth and sixth quartets are long, deep and challenging. But the sixth has moments of a springlike sunniness  that may reflect  its following Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin. The last two are short — the seventh is only 11 minutes long. But it carries deep emotion: It commemorates the death of his beloved wife Nita, mother of his two children, to cancer at 43.

The following quartet, while slightly longer, carries an even heavier weight. Dedicated to “the victims of fascism and war,” it is full of quotes of the composer’s earlier works. He considered it autobiographical: there is a constant motif that states, again and again, the musical equivalent of the first four letters of Shostakovich’s name.

There are also Jewish themes, and the constant reiteration of a theme identified with the dreadful knock on the door in the night. It is an overwhelming 17 minutes, a black hole of musical narrative, and the audience and the quartet both seemed shattered when it was done, relieved to walk out of doors, onto the trim spring lawn, into the sunny afternoon.

 I’ll die happy if I ever get to hear the rest of Shostakovich’s chamber music played like this.

Video: The Pacifica Quartet plays "Intimate Letters" live on Soundcheck

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