Pacifica Quartet bids a bittersweet farewell to University of Chicago

Mon Apr 25, 2016 at 11:14 am

By John Y. Lawrence

The Pacifica Quartet performed its final concert as University of Chicago ensemble in residence Sunday afternoon at Mandel Hall. Photo: Lisa Marie Mazzucco
The Pacifica Quartet performed its final concert as University of Chicago ensemble in residence Sunday afternoon at Mandel Hall. Photo: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

 After seventeen seasons as resident performing artists—three of those as the Don Michael Randel Ensemble in Residence—the Pacifica Quartet bid an official farewell to the University of Chicago Sunday afternoon at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts. (They will be back next season as guest artists.) During their tenure, they have shown unflagging commitment to both reinvigorating the standard string quartet repertoire and premiering contemporary works, including those by faculty and students of the university.

Their final concert featured one string quartet each from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, featuring composers that have figured prominently in their long Chicago tenure. Throughout the concert, they displayed all of their trademarks: eerie pianissimos in which their tones thinned and their bows barely seemed to move, savage fortissimos in which the players rocked back and forth with energy, and highly flexible and dramatic timing.

These features were shown to best advantage in the 20th-century work on the program: Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 11. What made their performance so masterful was the emotional restraint they exercised for most of the piece. The playing was gaunt, but without wiriness. This restraint made their few violent outbursts—in the Recitative and the Etude in particular—seem even more wrenching by contrast.

That otherworldly hush that they do so well was put to great use in the Elegy and the Finale, which sounded appropriately drained of feeling, as if traumatized by the events of prior movements.

It would be nice to say that the rest of this sendoff concert went perfectly smoothly. But Pacifica’s performances of the other two works were more uneven, with spectacular highs, along with instances of surprisingly scrappy playing.

Although Mozart’s String Quartet in G major, K. 387, is sometimes called the “Spring” quartet, it has little patches of darkness (mostly, unexpected minor-key twists) sprinkled throughout. Two of these include the trio of the minuet, and the sudden plunge into the minor in the recapitulation of the third movement. The Pacifica Quartet played both of these with a bleakness rare in Mozart performances. Indeed, the almost Romantic intensity they brought to the slow movement was the highlight of the piece.

In the finale, the chirpy closing theme of the exposition was played with ample charm. But the fugal main theme sounded flustered, and at times was badly out of tune.

Major intonation problems also appeared in two movements of the last work in the program: Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 131. First violinist Simin Ganatra veered disconcertingly off pitch at one point in the second movement, and at various points in the otherwise strongly characterized Andante variations.

But these problems were made up for by the other five movements of the Beethoven. Pacifica’s expert timing was put to excellent use in the suitably grotesque scherzo. And the Adagio was all aching tenderness.

After a harrowing finale, the quartet gave an encore. Who could possibly follow Beethoven’s Op. 131 but Beethoven himself?

The Pacifica played the last of his great slow movements—the Lento from his final string quartet, Op. 135. This was the warmest, most ravishing playing of the afternoon. And the bittersweet cast of that melody captured perfectly the tone of their departure from the university to which they have contributed so much beautiful music over the years.

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