Pacifica Quartet returns to UC in style for second Randel term

Sun Oct 22, 2023 at 12:30 pm

By John Y. Lawrence

The Pacifica Quartet performed Friday night at Mandel Hall.

They’re back! The Pacifica Quartet previously enjoyed a 17-year association at the University of Chicago as resident artists—three of them as the Don Michael Randel Ensemble-in-Residence from 2013–16.

Happily for Chicago audiences, the Bloomington-based group has returned to that role this fall for a one-year appointment to mark the Randel’s tenth anniversary season.

On Friday night in Mandel Hall, the quartet played a program consisting of a neglected 20th century work, a contemporary work, and one warhorse.

The first was Prokofiev’s String Quartet No. 2. The quartet was an atypical genre for him and this specific work has an atypical inspiration: the folk music of Kabardino-Balkaria in the Caucuses, where he sheltered during the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. Although Prokofiev was not generally inclined to draw upon folk music, a government official “persuaded” him.

Thank goodness he did. The results are stunning, with a particularly haunting Adagio second movement.

The Pacifica Quartet emphasized the piece’s dance-like qualities, playing strong accents only where Prokofiev requests them, rather than delivering the kind of unsubtle, rough-and-tumble performance that Prokofiev often elicits. Their careful attention to articulation made each theme distinctive.

All four players get solo passages in the piece, but the standout contributions were from cellist Brandon Vamos. His opening solo in the second movement and his cadenza in the third had a plangent, pleading vocal quality that stood apart from the distinctly stringy sound of the rest of the piece.

The contemporary work was Sean Shepherd’s finely crafted String Quartet No. 3, composed in 2020. Shepherd’s keen ear for sonority doesn’t lead him astray, but the piece’s various episodes lack freshness and cohesion. Ultimately, the work sounds too much like a greatest hits of late 20th-century string quartet techniques.

It was easy to guess exactly what the first movement, “Hot and Cold,” would sound like before it started: “hot” is fast and loud (mostly scampering), “cold” is slow and quiet (mostly glassy chords). The second movement— titled “Before and after the two B’s” for Bartok and Boulez—has melodic charm, but evokes the former a little too strongly to sound original. The strongest section was the third movement, “Bottomless,” with its more tightly focused manipulation of just a few harmonic and rhythmic figures.

Because the music is so episodic, each section has to be sharply characterized to work, which the Pacifica Quartet did well. And they conjured a wonderfully chilly sound for the first movement’s cold chords.

The concert concluded with Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15 in A Minor, Opus 132, perhaps the most celebrated of his so-called “late quartets.”

Like much of Beethoven’s late music, it rejects the emphasis on dramatic and narrative clarity that characterizes his middle period. The first movement constantly interrupts its own flow, and it is unclear whether the second and third movements’ archaic pastiches are ironic or sincere. The fourth movement is in four different tempi despite being only two minutes long. Only the fifth movement resembles the Beethoven of a decade earlier.

Pacifica’s interpretation was unusually lyrical, sometimes bordering on the sentimental. This piece is known for its beauty, but not for its prettiness. Yet whenever there was an opportunity to make the music pretty, to bring out the sweetness of the melodies, the quartet as a whole (and first violinist Simin Ganatra in particular) seized upon it.

As a result, some of Beethoven’s contrapuntal interplay and quirky accompaniment patterns got buried with the emphasis on the melodic top line. The moment-to-moment strangeness was audible, but the within-moment strangeness was suppressed.

This is not to say that Pacifica downplayed some of the bleakest movements. The codas of the second and fourth movement sounded even darker than usual because Pacifica provided so much light elsewhere. And the general emphasis on legato meant that the few passages with detached articulation (the “Neue Kraft fühlend” sections of the third-movement Heiliger Dankgesang and the march rhythms that open the fourth movement) sounded airier by contrast.

The UChicago Presents series continues 7:30 p.m. October 27 with a performance by the OpenEndedGroup with Tom Chiu and Jodi Melnick.

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