What’s it like to steer clear of the bottom but never quite hit the heights? Masumi Per Rostad on the vicarious life of the viola.

In contentious times, we know the story. Two sides are separated by a great distance, and cannot find their way to unity without a go-between, a trusted, passionate and eloquent guide. A middle voice. Such is the musical challenge of the string quartet. Two high-voiced violins stand at one pole, a single low cello stands at the other. Sandwiched in between, there is this crucial middle voice. The viola.

“There’s only one of you”, says Masumi Per Rostad, violist with the Pacifica Quartet. But that one is mighty. “You straddle worlds of sound, worlds of musical character. Sometimes you’re Eusebius and sometimes Florestan”, he says, referring to Robert Schumann’s invented personality-characters, the first sensitive and quiet, the other outwardly exuberant. The role of violist “requires you to be very mercurial”.

Masumi Per Rostad, Pacifica QuartetMasumi Per Rostad, violist in the Pacifica Quartet. Photo © Keith Saunders

I spoke to Masumi on a Sunday afternoon, while he drove from his home in “Bloomy” (Bloomington, Indiana) to a concert in “the ‘other’ Carnegie Hall”, in Pittsburgh. I’ve known him for years, since my old band, eighth blackbird, was in residence at the University of Chicago with the Pacifica Quartet.

As a musician, Masumi is both poet and surgeon, his sound warm and emotionally potent but employed with sharply-focused precision. As a person, he cuts a debonair figure, exuding a relaxed confidence while possessing a disarmingly mischievous sense of humour. When we talk he laughs often, an infectious sound that is part childlike giggle and part conspiratorial chuckle. He is particularly tickled by a story from his first trip to Australia with Pacifica, to the Perth Festival.

The name “Cottesloe Beach” stuck in his head, not just for its beauty, but for its underwater danger. “Every other day during our trip there were shark attacks”, says Masumi. The quartet’s hosts, attempting to set American minds at ease, assured them again and again that there was no danger from sharks. Until, later on, one of them admitted, “‘Yeah… actually… my father was attacked by a shark’”.

Masumi Per Rostad, Pacifica QuartetMasumi Per Rostad. Photo © Keith Saunders

Speaking to Masumi on the eve of Pacifica’s first national tour with Musica Viva, I ask him what he is most looking forward to about Australia. He laughs uncomfortably, admitting, “I don’t even know which cities I’m going to!” Then, sheepishly, he explains: “I typically spend a lot of time booking my own travel, sorting out which hotel, and how I’m going to get there.” But in Australia he can relax, put himself “in the capable hands of Musica Viva, show up, and take it all in!”

The quartet’s tour will include performances of a brand new Australian work, Nigel Westlake’s String Quartet No 2. Since its inception, Pacifica has maintained a commitment to the music of our time, premiering more than 100 new works for string quartet, so the ensemble is delighted not to just impose their own repertoire, “but to contribute to the growth of a locally grown culture”.

Doing battle with reams and reams of new music has transformed Masumi from a musician who thinks “in absolutes” to one who “understands the need for greater flexibility”. Encountering a blank slate each time forces a beneficial change in perspective, a need to identify the approach “of each individual composer, how they express a musical concept on paper”.

Masumi lights up when talking about one particular contemporary composer. Pacifica recorded and performed all five string quartets by Elliott Carter, who died in 2012, a project that won the ensemble a Grammy Award. Diving deeply into this complex, multi-dimensional music encouraged him to open up and release his musical personality. “Carter allows for – even insists on – a lot of freedom within the ensemble.” This freedom and flexibility, says Masumi, has altered his approach to older composers.

When Masumi joined the quartet in 2001, one of the first projects it embarked upon was the performance and recording of the complete Mendelssohn quartets. “Repertoire defines an ensemble,” believes Masumi. “What you play forms you, and changes your thinking, your perspective and understanding.” And the Romantic German composer gave Masumi the best education in string quartet playing. Mendelssohn’s writing “is so completely natural, and makes so much sense from a technical perspective. Every line feels right.” This fluency contrasts with Beethoven’s quartet writing, where instrumental voices make awkward leaps. “You feel that Beethoven is fitting a round peg into a square hole, like he makes something happen by sheer willpower.”

For its Musica Viva tour, Pacifica is bringing Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 13, a work of astonishing maturity, written when the composer was just 18 years old. The quartet is also touring Australia with the Third Quartet by Dmitri Shostakovich, a work that it knows inside and out, having spent the past five years performing and recording Shostakovich’s immense cycle of quartets.

According to Masumi, the Russian composer allows for myriad musical approaches. “If you compare different interpretations of the same piece, you begin to wonder if it’s even the same piece.” Masumi attributes these discrepancies to an openness in Shostakovich’s language. “He leaves a lot of room, and you can either fill in that space or leave it spare.” It all depends on “the way that you play between the notes.”

Masumi speaks with interest about Pacifica’s projects, but it is when talk turns to his recently purchased Amati viola that his voice truly trips and skips with ardor. Masumi is in love with this miraculous work of craftsmanship. And he speaks of it not just as a passing fling, but as the beginning of a lifelong love affair.

Buying the instrument “made me realise about how stupid I am,” Masumi rhapsodises, dreamily. He went in with expectations, prejudices and desires. “I was narrow minded. But once I entered a relationship with the viola, the more it has opened up. Its unknown quantities have changed me, changed my approach and sound, changed what is possible.” He struggles to find the right term for the relationship, and settles on “sound conversation”.

Three days before Masumi and I talk, the Eastman School of Music, in upstate New York, issued a press release: Masumi Per Rostad is to join the faculty of the school. After 16 years, he is leaving the quartet. The Pacifica’s Australian tour will be Masumi’s penultimate international tour with the ensemble.

“It’s a new chapter,” says Masumi, “and I’m really excited to be focusing on teaching, on personal projects and my family.” He feels “grateful to have that opportunity to play string quartets for 16 years,” but notes that his tenure with the ensemble is longer than almost any other quartet violist.

Pacifica QuartetThe Pacifica Quartet

“I feel like I’ve learned so much and I’ve had wonderful opportunities. I’m really grateful for that. I’m excited now to explore practising and music-making in a very different way,” he says.

And this life-change is not so much a new direction as an acknowledgement of a direction that has been forming since Masumi was an undergraduate; a direction kindled by his beloved first teacher, Karen Tuttle, with whom he studied for six years at The Juilliard School. Tuttle saw something special in Masumi. “For my first three years, she said, ‘I’m going to teach you how to play viola.’ And then for the second three, she said, ‘I’m going to teach you how to teach.’” Tuttle entrusted her young student not only with her wisdom, but, on occasion, her students as well.

“She was around 80 years old,” recalls Masumi, “and would occasionally miss weeks of teaching. So she would call me up on Monday morning and say, ‘Can you teach my students this week?’” Surprising, and somewhat terrifying, because Masumi was still an undergraduate at the time. And some of the older students were surprised: “A doctoral candidate would show up, see me, then be like, ‘…um… REALLY?’”

But it was these sink-or-swim, hands-on experiences that gave Masumi the teaching bug. And his core teaching belief? “Playing the viola is easy, music is difficult.” Instrumental technique should be “natural and fluid, not something you have to force,” and the challenge comes “in understanding the art, in using your technique to support your concept. And that is really, really hard,” he says.

Before I leave him to the Springtime roadworks hell of I-70, I ask Masumi one final question: What is the role of the viola in a quartet? He laughs heartily, then counters with a question of his own: “What is a viola?”

According to Masumi, the size of the violin and cello are somewhat standardised. But the viola is a problem child, varying in length from 15 inches to almost 18 inches, a difference of almost a quarter of the size of the instrument. He notes that the “extreme variations of string length, height of the instrument’s ribs and the width of the body”, all dramatically change the sound of the instrument. So is there any such thing as a viola? Masumi laughs. “It is open to… many definitions.”

The Pacifica Quartet is touring Australia with Musica Viva from June 11 – 26