Pacifica Quartet wraps brief UChicago return with elevated artistry

Mon Jan 29, 2024 at 3:29 pm

By Tim Sawyier

The Pacifica Quartet performed Sunday at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center. Photo: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

Having previously served as a resident ensemble at the University of Chicago for 17 years, the Bloomington-based Pacifica Quartet is back this season as the University’s Don Michael Randel Ensemble-in-Residence. 

The group performed their final engagement in that capacity Sunday afternoon for UChicago Presents at the Logan Center Performance Hall, offering the kind of elevated ensemble playing one has come to expect from their long tenure in Hyde Park.

The Pacifica program began with a genuine curio in the form of Louis Gruenberg’s Four Diversions for String Quartet, Op. 32. Born in Belorussia in 1864, Gruenberg came to the United States as a child and excelled as a virtuoso pianist. In his twenties he turned his attention squarely to composition, ultimately moving to Hollywood in the 1930’s to write film music, garnering multiple Academy Awards. He also wrote a Violin Concerto for Jascha Heifetz, which the celebrated musician recorded in 1945.

The Four Diversions date from 1930, shortly before Gruenberg’s West Coast relocation. Lasting under ten minutes, the aphoristic miniatures each efficiently capture a mood and then dissipate almost as quickly. A quirky tarantella gives way to more an angular tableau, which is followed by a sultry aria, like short clips from a film. The Pacifica players projected these condensed expressions with thoughtful commitment. The final Allegro burlando has a sneering, machine-like quality that made an excellent segue to the Shostakovich that followed.

Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 2 in A Major, Op. 68, was written while the composer was at a rural Soviet “House of Rest and Creativity” during the otherwise dark summer of 1944. First violinist Simin Ganatra brought elan to Overture’s striding opening theme, though its confident A Major is promptly derailed by harmonic ambiguities. Ganatra and her colleagues—violinist Austin Hartman, violist Mark Holloway, and cellist Brandon Vamos—were keenly in sync through the restless wandering that ensued, energetically sustaining the musical tension.

Jewish folk influences abound in the Recitative and Romance, and while Ganatra was fluent in her extended improvisational solos, these could have tolerated more characterization; the muted ending, however, sounded aptly distant and desolate. This aesthetic continued in the eerie Waltz, also muted, which gave a palpable sense of voices silenced. Holloway eloquently intoned the echt-Russian melody of the concluding Theme and Variations, the quartet charting the aggressive escalation to which Shostakovich treats it through to a fulminating conclusion.

Dvořák’s String Quartet in F Major, Op. 96, is widely known as the “American,” though could be appreciated with greater specificity as the “Midwestern.” The Bohemian composer wrote the score during his 1893 summer sojourn staying in the Czech community of Spillville, Iowa (a five-hour drive northwest of Chicago and well worth the trip for Dvořák enthusiasts).

St. Wenceslaus Church, Spillville, Iowa. Photo: Tim Sawyier

Throughout their rendition the Pacifica members inhabited the quartet’s open-air aesthetic. Hollaway was expansive in the opening viola melody, and with his counterparts brought tenderness to the Allegro ma non troppo’s limpid second theme. The foursome collectively captured the spiritual quality of the Lento, highlighted by Vamos’ keening rendering of its mournful tune.

The Molto vivace went with jocular propulsion, and the quartet members brought immense vigor to the snappy Vivace ma no troppo, deftly turning inward for the closing movement’s more introspective episodes. The high-stepping coda brought a prompt standing ovation, ending another impressive Hyde Park stand for the Pacifica.

UChicago Presents hosts the Akropolis Reed Quintet 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Logan Center in works of Thomas, Gershwin, Skye, and Mellits.

Posted in Performances

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