In the Pacifica String Quartet, no second fiddles _lowres

Photo provided -- The Pacifica Quartet will perform at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 21, in Tulane University's Dixon Hall.

Masumi Per Rostad is the youngest member in one of America’s oldest touring string quartets, the Pacifica Quartet.

That doesn’t make him a rock star, but that clearly isn’t the goal of someone who plays the viola, an instrument that usually takes a back seat to the violin.

Then again, Rostad doesn’t play second fiddle to anyone in the Pacifica Quartet, which will kick off the New Orleans Friends of Music’s 2015-16 season Wednesday, Oct. 21, in Tulane University’s Dixon Hall. The quartet is a unit with all instruments contributing to one sound.

And the sounds for this concert will be those written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Shulamit Ran and Felix Mendelssohn.

“The viola isn’t usually the leading instrument, but we play as an ensemble,” Rostad says. “But there are also a lot of great parts written for viola. Mozart and Hayden used to fight out who got to play the viola. It was an honor to play it, and it’s really a fantastic instrument.

Besides, the viola is what brought him to the Pacifica Quartet in 2001 after graduating from the Juilliard School in New York. He was already teaching fellow students while there, which made for an easy transition to teaching at Indiana University.

That’s where the Pacifica Quartet is based as the “Quartet-in-Residence,” and where each of its members, Rostad, along with first violinist Simin Ganatra, second violinist Sibbi Bernhardsson and cellist Brandon Vanos, are professors in the music department.

“Indiana University has one of the best music schools in the country,” Rostad says. “I love teaching, and we often teach when we’re on the road. We’re also the resident performing artists at the University of Chicago.”

The Pacifica Quartet has been on the road since forming in 1994, making it one of the few string quartets that has been touring for more than 20 years. Rostad is the only player who isn’t an original member.

“I started out on the violin when I was 4, and I switched to the viola when I was 12,” Rostad says. “I loved its luxurious sound, but it’s harder to hear, because it’s right in the middle. You usually hear the treble at the top and the bass at the bottom.”

But without the viola, the balance on which Pacifica Quartet prides itself would not be there. That balance, mixed with passion for its music, has won the quartet numerous prizes and awards. It has appeared in concert halls throughout the world, and the Wednesday concert will mark its third appearance in the New Orleans Friends of Music concert series.

The quartet not only is recognized for its performing style but also its daring repertory choices, which includes pieces by contemporary composers.

“In this performance, we’ll play a piece by Shulamit Ran,” Rostad says. “This is a piece commissioned by the quartet, and whenever you commission something new, you never really know what’s going to happen. But now we have this new, beautiful piece, and it’s a privilege to work with a living, breathing composer, because we’re able to discuss the work with her.”

The dynamics are clear in Mozart’s music, but musicians can only interpret how he wanted it expressed in a performance.

“But when we work with Shulamit, we’re able to ask her what we can do to express the music more clearly,” Rostad says. “It makes all the difference.”

And in the middle of it all, Rostad keeps the balance on his viola.