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Chamber Music Quartet

On-the-go musicians strike the right note to balance family and career

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Pacifica Quarter portrait
The Pacifica Quartet performs a concert at Rice University as part of the Houston Friends of Chamber Music series. Photo by Saverio Truglia
Vamos Family Pacifica Quartet
Simin Ganatra and hubby Brandon Vamos with daughters Layla Vamos, left, and Mira Vamos. Courtesy photo
Pacifica Quartet Brandon Vamos family
Cellist Brandon Vamos and daughter Mira. Courtesy photo
Pacifica Quartet Brandon Vamos family
Layla Vamos, left, Mira Vamos and daddy Brandon Vamos during a trip to Italy. Courtesy photo
Pacifica Quarter portrait
Vamos Family Pacifica Quartet
Pacifica Quartet Brandon Vamos family
Pacifica Quartet Brandon Vamos family

Age old wisdom says that the grueling calendar of a traveling classical musician and parenting just don't mix. It's hard enough for performers to launch and maintain an active career, which usually entails playing in a handful of ensembles in addition to holding teaching posts, recording albums, presenting lectures and master classes and, for some, odd jobs here and there. Where does one find the time for what should be the top priority?

That would be the kids.

Consider two musicians in the Pacifica Quartet, on residence at Indiana University in Bloomington, to be pioneers of sorts. The string foursome has a robust travel schedule, which includes a stop in Houston Thursday to perform at Rice University as part of the Houston Friends of Chamber Music series, but that hasn't hindered violinist Simin Ganatra and cellist Brandon Vamos, who have been married to each other for 14 years, from balancing the fine art of raising a family with the fine art of music making — something that runs in the family.

"My parents traveled quite a bit," recalls Brandon. "Every weekend they would travel four hours on the train to teach in Chicago. My siblings and I . . . we turned out just fine — I think? (laughs)."

Brandon Vamos' parents, Roland and Almita Vamos, are prominent violin and viola instructors on faculty at the Music Institute of Chicago and at Northwestern University. Roland and Almita met in New York while students at the Juilliard School. Today, they are sought-after pedagogues whose students hold prestigious posts across the world. Among some of their accomplished pupils who have been in Houston are Rachel Barton Pine, Jennifer Koh and Daniel Ching of the Miro Quartet, the group that opened this year's Houston Friends of Chamber Music season.

Add Brandon's partner in crime to that list.

 "When I step out onstage to perform a high profile concert and feel slightly nervous, seeing the girls in the audience immediately takes the edge off."

"My wife studying with my parents? It's not as weird as it sounds," he jokes.

You can say that Simin and Brandon are carrying on the family's legacy.

Brandon estimates that the Pacifica Quartet's engagements account for 160 days a year of travel, some national, some as far away as Japan and Australia. With their two daughters, 8-year-old Layla and 3-year old Mira, the couple sees gallivanting from city to city as quality family time — an adventure that's creating lifelong memories and invaluable educational opportunities.

"It takes a lot of planning and organizing," Brandon explains. "During the school year, with the full support of our colleagues, we arrange the quartet's travel schedule so we take quick, shorter trips to nearby destinations. We may do quick escapes three weekends a month to perform six or so concerts. If we are gone for three days or more, the girls definitely come with us."

The Pacifica Quartet reserves longer concert tours for when the children are out of school. During the Thanksgiving holidays, spring break and summer vacation, the chamber ensemble typically glob trots to locations farther away from home. For lengthy plane flights, their survival kit includes coloring books, computer tablets to watch videos, games and children's books.

"If they miss too many days of school, more days than a public school may be comfortable with, we hear from administrators about their absences," he adds. "But I feel there's so much to learn from visiting other cities and experiencing other cultures. In those cases, we make sure we make time for their school work."

Taking note of how his children discover the world reminds Brandon to cherish this special time of their lives. As the little ones begin recognizing that the planet is a big place, particularly as they get older, their excitement is infectious. Through their parent's metiér, the girls have also developed a love for music. In addition to taking up ballet, Layla has followed in her mother's footsteps and is currently taking violin lessons.

"Her choice," Brandon explains. "And she always takes her violin on the road."

As Layla progresses in her music studies, attending the quartet's concerts offers an unparalleled environment to learn about life as a professional musician. For Brandon, their presence also has a heartwarming effect.

"When I step out onstage to perform a high profile concert and feel slightly nervous, seeing the girls in the audience immediately takes the edge off," Brandon says. "They are the most important part of my life. Why get uptight about just another performance?

"Having them there loosens me up. And that's a wonderful feeling."
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Houston Friends of Chamber music presents the Pacifica Quartet on Thursday, 7:30 p.m., at Rice University's Shepherd School of Music. Tickets start at $20 and can be purchased online or by calling 713-348-5400.

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