Pacifica Quartet & Sharon Isbin Celebrate Italian & Spanish Composers

By Pat Moran

Spain and Italy have much more in common than shared Latin-derived languages and sun dappled beaches on the azure Mediterranean Sea. Cellist Brandon Vamos contends that the music from both cultures is compatible. “They work so well together,” he says. Vamos, who founded the Pacifica Quartet with his wife violinist SiminGanatra in 1994, puts his thesis to the test with Souvenirs of Spain & Italy. Drawing from a time span encompassing the Baroque era to the present day, the Cedille release features compositions from Spaniard Joaquín Turina, plus Spanish-influenced pieces by a trio of Italians—Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Antonio Vivaldi, and Luigi Boccherini. 

Although the quartet, comprised of second violinist Austin Hartman and violist Mark Holloway along with Vamos and Ganatra, essay an anxious and introspective version of Turino’s “La oración del torero,” they are joined on the remaining compositions by multiple-Grammy-award-winning guitarist Sharon Isbin.  

Performing as a guitar quintet, Pacifica and Isbin recorded Souvenirs at Auer Hall at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music in Bloomington, where the ensemble serves as quartet-in-residence and full-time faculty.

“I think these works are under-recorded and they deserve attention,” Vamos says. “It’s music full of melody, color, and virtuosity.”     

Souvenirs of Spain & Italy is the first joint recording by the quartet and Sharon Isbin. How did it come together?

Three or four summers ago we got an email from the Aspen Music Festival saying Sharon Isbin was interested in doing repertoire with us. We’ve all known about Sharon for years. I remember hearing her when I was a teenager in Indianapolis. She’s a great musician, so we were excited to collaborate. We had been playing adaptations of [some of these songs] for years. We got together to play some of the stuff that’s on the CD and other things, and she contributed several solos. We hit it off right away. There are not a lot of people performing guitar quintet. It’s so interesting and fun to play with the amplified guitar. It adds such a different texture.


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Sharon Isbin with the Pacifca Quartet
Sharon Isbin with the Pacifca Quartet

After that summer we said that we wanted to play together. Then we approached our manager about doing some concerts with Sharon and over the next couple of years we started playing songs, like the Tedesco, the Boccherini, and the concerto. We put together a program that centers on Italy and Spain. It’s such a good program. The audience loves how it flows. We were getting more and more comfortable playing together and playing this repertoire, so the next plausible step was recording these pieces. They haven’t been recorded a lot and we put so much time and effort into performing them that we thought it made sense to record them.

I called our wonderful label Cedille Records, Judy Sherman, our [Grammy-winning] producer and our [Grammy-nominated] engineer Bill Maylone. They all got behind the project.  

Why do you focus on these particular Italian and Spanish composers?

A lot of it came about naturally as part of our repertoire. Boccherini was an Italian who lived most of his life in Spain, so the Fandango has this Spanish flair. We thought the Tedesco would be a strong effort and fun to play. We decided to pair those two [because] the programming has this connection: The Italian composer Boccherini has the Spanish Fandango. The Italian Tedesco includes “Souvenirs of Spain” in his piece.

Then Sharon mentioned that she had played the [Vivaldi] string quartet with the Pujol arrangement [for guitar, violin, viola, and cello]. It’s a beautiful piece that has the same connection in terms of the two countries. Then, to keep the theme going, we decided to play the Turina, which is of Spanish origin.  


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You’ve praised Isbin’s attention to detail, subtlety, nuance, rubato, and timing. How was her interplay with the quartet?

She has a real freedom yet it’s within bounds. She can be free within a bar where the tempos remain the same. It doesn’t feel at all cumbersome. Nothing ever feels square in her hands. It’s organic, [and] that affects the way we respond together. So much of the music, especially the Tedesco, is conversation and how you respond off each other. 

Boccherini, a cellist, included virtuosic parts for the instrument in his quintet. How did you approach this piece?

It’s incredibly challenging for the cellist. I think all three movements, but especially the second movement, have big moments for the cellist. Boccherini throws the cellist into the extreme high-end registers of the instrument, where usually the first violin would play. When you get very high on the instrument there’s very little room for error with intonation. Everything is so close together. To be able to play it cleanly, clearly, and with proper intonation takes a ton of practice. It’s very challenging because as a quartet cellist, I’ve spent a lot of my time in the middle range of the instrument. And there’s these light harmonic parts that pop out where the slightest contraction of your fingers affects how the sound comes out, whether it speaks or not.  


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Do you have a favorite piece on the album?

The slow movement of the Tedesco is a really beautiful moment, very reflective. It’s a picture of Spain and Spanish life. But then I would not shortchange the Fandango movement [in Boccherini]. It’s incredibly fun and lively and it has different textures. I also love the Turina with the bullfighter’s prayer in the chapel before entering the arena. 

What cello do you play on the album?

It’s a Gasparo da Salò, an Italian cello in keeping with the [album’s] theme. It was made in the 1580s, one of only two Gasparo cellos that I know of in existence. It’s very dark in sound and tone. The fingering is strikingly different on this cello, so when I switch to another it really affects how I get around the instrument. It’s one of the earliest modern-day cellos that is still being played today.