The Pacifica Quartet will perform all 15 string quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich, starting on May 22 at the Montreal Chamber Music Festival. It’s the fifth time the quartet will tackle the Shostakovich cycle, considered to be the greatest set of string quartets of the 20th century. Two of the Pacificas are actually married to each other: first violinist Simin Ganatra and cellist Brandon Vamos. CBC Music spoke to the couple about the challenges of taking on a Shostakovich cycle, with kids in tow.
Q: How do Shostakovich’s string quartets stand out from his other music?
Simin Ganatra: Shostakovich’s music is incredibly personal. In the string quartets, he uses a different voice from the one he uses in his other music, possibly because the string quartets were sort of under the radar, not as scrutinized. We get to hear what Shostakovich wanted to write for himself. It’s not a Shostakovich that people normally hear. People say “wow, that’s Shostakovich? I never knew he wrote music like that!”
Q: How does the Shostakovich cycle differ from string quartet cycles by other composers?
Brandon Vamos: There are similarities between Beethoven and Shostakovich. Like Beethoven’s quartets, Shostakovich’s are very exposed. A lot of it is sparsely written; there’s not much hiding. But with Shostakovich, the music can be incredibly wild and you feel you have to give 190 per cent. The emotional range is really wide and it changes very quickly. It can go from something sweet or happy to sarcastic or incredibly depressed in a short period of time.
Ganatra: There’s so much physicality to this music, especially with all the fast movements. There’s a lot of forte playing. And even the slow movements require a certain energy. You never just play along; you’re either playing with a slow intense bow or incredibly passionate and fortissimo.
Q: In Montreal, you’re performing the cycle in four concerts over four consecutive nights. How do you prepare physically?
Vamos: It’s a bit like a marathon. We’ve done stuff like this before. We did a Beethoven cycle in Tokyo last summer where we did all the big string quartets over 48 hours, Friday night until Sunday. We started a few weeks before running through things, running even a couple of programs. We found that we needed to play through them to know how it feels to play one quartet and the next one back to back.
Q: How will the Montreal cycle differ from the others?
Vamos: We’ve done them over a year in a few different places, once in four concerts and once in five. In London we did them in six concerts. In Montreal it’s much more compact. People will actually experience them without breaks in between. Hopefully what the audience will get is how each quartet has its own distinct personality. Certainly the late quartets have a heavy dark element to them. They’re very concerned with death. By the time you get to the 15th quartet, he knows that this is his last work. It’s like a recap. Almost all the quartets are represented in that 15th quartet.
Q: What have you learned about Shostakovich, the person, from playing the cycle so many times?
Ganatra: There are many more sides to him than I thought. I always thought Shostakovich was very sad and depressed, and of course there is that. But there’s a lot of optimism and sometimes lightness and joy and humanity.
Vamos: I think in his life he had to do what he had to do to survive. But he was a very sensitive, caring person who stood behind people that he was friends with, for example, Jewish people who were under great scrutiny all the time. I get that sense from the music that he was a real caring individual who felt things strongly. And that’s what audiences get out of it, too. His music speaks to each person. It’s almost like he’s directing something to that person in the third row and they feel it and to that person in the seventh row. That’s the kind of personal statement he makes.
Simin Ganatra and Brandon Vamos pose with daughters Layla and Mira. (Photo: Supplied by the Pacifica Quartet).
Q: You’re a married couple with two children. How do you manage parenting and performing?
Ganatra: Our one-and-a-half-year-old will come with us to Montreal. Because we’ll be busy all day, our six-year-old will stay at home and go to school. When we’re on tour, there’s a lot of travel time. As it turns out that tends to be really nice family time, too. We spend a lot of time just sitting and talking. But it can be exhausting physically, carrying all the gear that comes with children, especially when we tour in Europe and go to a different city every day. In Montreal we’ll be in the same place for five days, so it’s easier for us because we don’t have to move around. And when we’re not playing or rehearsing we’ll be spending time with the kids.
Vamos: The kids have seen a lot, Europe, Japan and now Australia. Our six-year-old is starting to get it. She’s starting to enjoy going to these places. Our one-and-a-half-year-old is just happy to be with us and doing whatever. The hotel room is as exciting as whatever we see outside. But the experiences they’re getting are great, and to experience it with us is kind of special.
Q: Has your playing been changed by the fact that you’re parents?
Vamos: There’s something about having children that takes off a little bit of the pressure of the performing. You realize there’s something that’s way more important in life. Not that there’s not a lot of importance in the concerts. But if you don’t have your best night, you come home and the children are sleeping, and you realize that’s what life is all about. At times it’s a struggle because you have to get your practice time in, sometimes late at night when you’re exhausted. But it also makes you more efficient. You have this much time to get something done. When you have all the time in the world, it can be really hard to get focused and use your time well.
Listen to the Pacifica Quartet perform the Recitative and Romance from Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 2, recently released on the Çedille label. Simin Ganatra admires this movement for its “sense of operatic drama.”
[Listen: Pacifica Quartet]
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on May 17, 2012