by PAUL BICKLEY
At the 2021 Grammy Awards, Indiana University’s quartet-in-residence, The Pacifica Quartet, was awarded Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance for its album Contemporary Voices. The quartet, which has been at IU since 2012, won in the same category in 2008 for Elliott Carter: String Quartets Nos. 1 and 5.
The second win was “as good as the first,” says cellist Brandon Vamos. “It’s a very exciting thing to be recognized.”
Due to pandemic restrictions, the event was held virtually. “The statuette should arrive any day now,” says violist Mark Holloway.
The three pieces on Contemporary Voices were written for Pacifica by three Pulitzer Prize-winning female composers: Ellen Taaffe Zwilich and Shulamit Ran, the first and second women to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music; and Jennifer Higdon, a three-time Grammy winner for Best Contemporary Classical Composition.
Holloway, who took up the viola because he liked the sound of its name, says that the album’s pieces have a connection with the pandemic. “Jennifer Higdon’s ‘Voices’ begins with a big bang of thunder and lightning, the intensity lessens throughout, and the piece ends with grace, beauty, and calm on a hopeful note,” he explains.
Taking on contemporary compositions distinguishes the quartet from some of its peers, Holloway adds.
“It’s important to work with today’s composers, with evolving music, so that the field evolves,” says Vamos, who chose the cello because he wanted to play an instrument different from his parents’ violin and viola.
Vamos and violinist Simin Ganatra formed Pacifica after college in 1994 and came to IU in 2012 at the behest of the Jacobs School of Music faculty. Previously, the quartet had been in residence at several other institutions. At IU, violinist Austin Hartman joined in 2017; Holloway, in 2018. Since its inception, the quartet has recorded 20 albums.
Pacifica typically represents the university through 60–70 worldwide performances each year and coaches 10 student string quartets, as well as individual students. At IU, Vamos says, the quartet gets to learn from and collaborate with an “excellent faculty,” coach highly talented students, and enjoy a home base that keeps the group together and financially stable.
And Bloomington is a bonus. “Bloomington is a rich, diverse, interesting, cultural community,” Holloway says. “I came from New York City, and I still find inspiration here.”
For more information, including upcoming events, visit pacificaquartet.com.