Pacifica Quartet’s dark, thoughtful program feels timely at the Logan Center

Mon Jan 18, 2016 at 3:36 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

The Pacifica Quartet performed Sunday at the Logan Center for the Arts.
The Pacifica Quartet performed Sunday at the Logan Center for the Arts.

If the subzero temperature outside the Logan Center for the Arts Sunday afternoon wasn’t brutal enough, Shostakovich’s music made things even more chilling.

In addition to the dark-hued works by Schnittke and Shostakovich performed by the Pacifica Quartet, the University of Chicago Presents concert had an extramusical melancholy as well. Earlier this month, it was announced that the Pacifica’s contract as UC ensemble in residence would not be renewed, and that the gifted musicians would be departing Hyde Park after 17 years.

In his introduction to Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 13, Pacifica second violinist Sibbi Bernhardsson addressed the group’s impending departure in a gracious yet candid manner. He said Pacifica was “disappointed” but respects the University of Chicago music department’s decision to “go in a different direction.” (The Imani Winds will succeed them beginning this fall.) He thanked the university, UC Presents executive director Amy Iwano and, especially, Pacifica’s loyal Chicago audience for nearly two decades of support. The enthusiastic standing ovation by those in attendance at the end of the concert demonstrated that the strong bond and affection were mutual.

The Pacifica Quartet has made Shostakovich one of their specialities since their memorable complete survey of his quartets at Ganz Hall five years ago. Sunday’s performance of the Quartet No. 13 showed that their mastery in this repertoire has only deepened, and elegiac moments seemed to have an extra depth of feeling.

Even by Shostakovich’s grim-faced standard, the 13th is a work of unrelieved bleakness, written at a time of increased illness that would take the composer’s life five years hence. The work was dedicated to Vadim Borisovsky, violist of the Beethoven Quartet, and the instrument plays a prominent role throughout.

Cast in a single movement of twenty minutes, the quartet shows Shostakovich’s increased use of modified serialism, as in the desolate viola solo that opens the work. If the Pacifica brought greater intensity to the central section’s frenetic desperation on previous occasions, there was gain in the spacious eloquence that powerfully conveyed the score’s dark rumination, with the dirge-like tapping of bows and sense of the center not holding. The playing was first class throughout by all four musicians, not least violist Masumi Per Rostad who brought finely terraced dynamics and a spare, searching expression to his fragile, disembodied solos.

Even the usually downbeat Alfred Schnittke sounded like a Sousa march alongside the Shostakovich. Schnittke’s Quartet No. 3, which opened the program, cribs music from other composers, not in Schnittke’s usual jokey, sardonic way but as a means to a weightier expression.

In addition to Shostakovich’s DSCH motto, Schnittke mines a phrase from di Lasso’s Stabat Mater, which bring an uncharacteristic degree of repose. The final movement seems to end one time too many–a recurring problem with this composer’s music–yet the Pacifica players had the full measure of Schnittke’s subversive, tonality-skirting style, putting across the astringent contrasts in a fiery, fully committed performance.

After the coffin-nail despair of the first half, Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in E minor, Op. 44, no. 2, felt like balm to the soul. There are passing shadows in this music as well, but the predominant tone is spirited and optimistic.

Mendelssohn, another Pacifica specialty, suits these musicians especially well, with their light refinement and quicksilver esprit playing to the composer’s strengths. The Pacifica members brought the requisite fluency and tonal grace to this music, giving somber minor-key passages their due without overdoing the drama.

The scherzo went with the elfin spirit of Mendelssohn’s best fairy inspirations, and the players conveyed the sad-sweet melody of the Andante with pure tone while keeping the expression within scale. The final movement was duly impassioned, with the players deftly judging the rhythmic ebb and flow while maintaining firm momentum.

Musicians from Marlboro, featuring clarinetist Anthony McGill, will perform 7:30 p.m. Friday at Mandel Hall. The program includes Beethoven’s String Trio, Op. 9, no. 3, Penderecki’s Clarinet Quintet and Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet.; 773-702-8068.

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Pacifica Quartet’s dark, thoughtful program feels timely at the Logan Center”

  1. Posted Jan 18, 2016 at 7:15 pm by ChiLynne

    I was very saddened by the news. Always look forward to whatever the Pacifica choose to perform. They are a huge draw for UChicago Presents – at least, as far as I’m concerned. No one in our row was happy about it, and one described it as a tragedy.

  2. Posted Jan 19, 2016 at 1:38 pm by Spencer Cortwright

    I imagine Pacifica will still come to Chicago in other venues. For the multitude of Pacifica fans, we do have the option of being like Hawks fans and going on the road to hear Pacifica concerts, as they will give many concerts down the road in Bloomington, Indiana.

Leave a Comment