If "happy through merit" is the rough translation of "Felix Meritus," Robert Schumann's code name for fellow composer Felix Mendelssohn, then after hearing a performance of his string Octet, you'd have to logically assume he had a smile stretching from ear to ear. But he had ups and downs like any human.
The particular "up" he had as a 16-year-old penning the spiralling musical architecture that is the Octet is brilliance. You'd be hard-pressed to find a more mature work at the same age from any composer in history. Eight musicians interact in fresh combinations of bright-eyed themes while the piece drives inexorably forward. Two hundred years later, as the birth of Mendelssohn is celebrated everywhere, the Octet remains one of those stunning achievements that leaves one wondering exactly just how that genius spigot works.
It's the sort of question that arose in the Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society's satisfying "Mendelssohn Project," a presentation of his string quartets and the Octet. Anchoring the marathon event -- two concerts Sunday and one last night at Carnegie Music Hall -- was the Pacifica Quartet.
An ensemble operating under full confidence in its music-making, the Pacifica -- violinists Simin Ganatra and Sibbi Bernhardsson, violist Masumi Per Rostad and cellist Brandon Vamos -- owned these works. Mendelssohn wrote exuberance into music in his quartets like few have, but more than any quartet I have heard, the Pacifica makes capturing that a top priority. Their tone is alive and vibrant, yet never forced, such as in the sunny Op. 44 quartets that mark Mendelssohn's prime, also. The members of the Pacifica don't overly concern themselves with sounding alike: Quartet playing is supposed to be a conversation of equals, not of clones. That individuality allows for wonderful contrast between moments of absolute ensemble and those of textual diversity.
But this is only half the story, for Pacifica focuses as much on the flow of the music. One reason of several (including his Jewish roots) that unfairly pegged Mendelssohn as a relative lightweight in the pantheon of composers is that musicians often interpret him politely and emotionally flat. Not so the Pacifica. Moving almost like one organism on stage, the quartet made the works say something. When it wasn't appropriate, in the case of the Op. 81 Fugue and Capriccio, they held a line with impressive reserve. But in the case of the early quartets, Op. 12 and 13, this approach uncovered compelling musical material among the tuneful and harmonic sweetness.
And with Mendelssohn's mighty Quartet in F Minor, Op. 80, the Pacifica's attentiveness to the emotional underpinnings of the music paid off. Led by the tender and honest playing of Ganatra, the quartet tapped into a well of emotion in the work Mendelssohn wrote after the sudden death of his beloved sister Fanny. In the opening movement, Pacifica both accentuated melancholic harmonies and built to wild abandon. It drenched the Adagio in bittersweet beauty and grief.
As for the Octet, it ended the festival with the Miro Quartet joining the Pacifica on stage. Wonderfully matched in temperament and ability, the eight musicians (including cellist Joshua Gindele, a North Allegheny High School graduate) augmented what Pacfica had been doing to that point: ravishing timbre and virtuosic runs all serving the greater purpose of the language of the piece.
Two hundred years later and Mendelssohn still speaks to us, in the right hands.
Classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He blogs at Classical Musings at post-gazette.com.