Pacifica Quartet, Hamelin inhabit parallel worlds at Logan Center

Mon Oct 19, 2015 at 3:34 pm

By John Y. Lawrence

Marc-Andre-Hamelin performed with the Pacifica Quartet Sunday at the Logan Center in the University of Chicago Presents series.
Marc-Andre-Hamelin performed with the Pacifica Quartet Sunday at the Logan Center in the University of Chicago Presents series.

One of the abiding curiosities of performance is when musicians of wholly disparate temperaments combine forces for a concert. Sometimes they meet at the borderline of their aesthetic domains, and produce something that neither would ever do on their own. But sometimes it’s a perfectly elastic collision: all the ideas bounce and nothing sticks.

A case of the latter was Sunday afternoon’s entry in the University of Chicago Presents series at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts. The two colliding bodies were the Pacifica Quartet (ensemble-in-residence at the university) and the Canadian keyboard virtuoso Marc-André Hamelin, who was subbing on short notice for an indisposed Paul Lewis. Each played alone for the first half of the program, and then came together in the second half.

The Pacifica Quartet opened the concert with György Ligeti’s String Quartet No. 1, “Metamorphoses nocturnes.” In his explanatory introduction, cellist Brandon Vamos emphasized the piece’s humorous characteristics. And with illustrative demonstrations from first violinist Simin Ganatra, he explained the different transformations that the piece’s four-note main motive undergoes.

Vamos opined that the piece is a masterwork, and the quartet played it like one. The “nocturnes” in the title are not Chopin’s moonlit evenings, but the “night music” of Ligeti’s compatriot Bartok in which things go bump. Every creepy effect in this piece had sure impact in Pacifica’s performance. In their hands, notes could shriek, shiver, shimmer, ooze, and groan. The humor that Vamos described–a sort of mordant wit one associates more with Prokofiev than with Ligeti–was especially audible in a waltz-like section late in the piece.

But the key word in the title was “Metamorphoses.”The Pacifica Quartet rhetorically underlined every switch in texture, as if they were showing just how radically they could change their sound in an instant.

Hamelin’s solo contributions were all Debussy: first Images, Book I and then four excerpts from Book II of the Preludes.

His interpretations were as rhetoric-free as the quartet’s performance had been rhetoric-rich. Hamelin’s carefully calibrated dynamics lent large-scale shape to these pieces. He knew when to let the volume build and when to let it subside. But the fundamental color of his sound never changed. What was missing most was charm.

“Les fees sont d’exquises danseuses” (“Fairies Are Exquisite Dancers”) didn’t dance in Hamelin’s rendition. “La terrace des audiences du clair de lune” (“The Balcony Where Moonlight Holds Court”) is set in India, but Hamelin’s playing never left Chicago. His approach worked better for Images than for the Preludes. One treaded icy waters in Hamelin’s “Reflets dans l’eau,”but the waves were still there. The austerity of “Hommage à Rameau” befit the distance from the past.

The final piece on the program was Dvorak’s Piano Quintet in A, Opus 81. The performers each retained the aesthetic that they had brought to the previous pieces. Once again, the Pacifica Quartet went for high contrast. Each section of the first movement’s exposition had its own tempo and character. Both Vamos and Ganatra’s approach to the main theme of the first movement was unapologetically schmaltzy; Hamelin’s was flinty. In the transition, the quartet’s triplets danced wildly; Hamelin’s were like machine-gun fire.

The Piano Quintet is not a piece where the quartet and piano parts can be sequestered. Every important theme in the piece passes among the various instruments. The melodies that the quartet tugged and shaped with care were the very same ones that Hamelin tossed off. This was particularly evident in the contrapuntal development section of the finale, where the give and take is so important.

This disjunct was most damaging in the second-movement Dumka. Even with violist Masumi Per Rostad’s truly espressivo playing of the main theme, the little triplet figure with which the piano opens the movement had little playful charm until the theme moved into the violins.

The scherzo came off best. In spite of the dazzlingly fast tempo the musicians chose for the outer sections, their crisp articulation stopped the phrases from blurring. The trio—taken much more slowly—was then played as if it were in a dream-world, and its recollections of the scherzo’s main theme filtered through a hazy memory.

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