The Pacifica Quartet has secured a stellar reputation in the musical community, fed by a constant stream of awards and accolades for both their albums and performances. As audience members entered Mandel Hall on Sunday afternoon, they could be sure to expect an incredible performance. The quartet didn’t disappoint, astonishing yet again with their renditions of lesser known works by Bedrich Smetana and Henri Dutilleux, and the favorite “B minor Clarinet Quintet” by Brahms.
The concert started out with the thrilling intensity of the first chord of Smetana’s “String Quartet in E minor.” A contemporary of Brahms, Smetana was a Czech composer born in 1824. The quartet, named “From My Life,” was written two years after Smetana was suddenly and tragically struck deaf. Written in 1876, the quartet was meant as a representation of the composer’s life up to that point.
Dense and ominous, the opening of the first movement intends to foreshadow the difficulties that lay ahead in Smetana’s life. Playing with enthralling energy, the members of the Pacifica perfectly captured the wildly fluctuating moods of the piece, ranging from dark foreshadowing to saccharine sweet romanticism representative of the moment that Smetana met his wife. The most memorable moment in the piece, however, was the entrance of a high, piercing violin note in the fourth movement, depicting the onset of Smetana’s deafness.
The next piece, “Ainsi la Nuit,” or “Thus the Night,” by modern composer Henri Dutilleux, was the unexpected high point of the entire program. Before the piece began, violinist Sibbi Bernhardsson gave a brief introduction, providing the audience with a little background on the composer and why the Quartet chose the piece. Born in 1916 and still living, Dutilleux, known for his painstaking perfectionism, is one of the most significant contemporary composers. Bernhardsson explained that Dutilleux was greatly influenced by the paintings of Van Gogh and the writings of Proust. “Ainsi la Nuit” is invokes the colors of the night and a Proustian dream-like state.
The Quartet said that it has been meaning to play “Ainsi la Nuit” for years—it was well worth the wait. The composition employed a stunning combination of sharp pizzicato with a steady flow of lyrical notes, creating an unbroken, rotating subtext that invoked the haunting effect and dream-like quality to which it aspired. In this piece, more than any other in the program, the incredible musicianship of the quartet was put on display. The piece was atonal and had no set meter, yet each musician was in perfect sync and harmony. The Quartet employed a wide array of unconventional and difficult techniques, punctuating the music with remarkably intense and impressive passages. Yet despite the striking dissonances, a steady, lyrical beauty was consistently maintained throughout the piece.
The final piece on the program, Brahms’s “Clarinet Quintet in B Minor,” was by far the most well known. Clarinetist Todd Palmer played with remarkable sensitivity, capturing the beautiful themes of the quintet and blending harmoniously with the strings. Often in quintets, the clarinet or other featured instrument acts as a separate voice in conversation with the strings. This is often not the case with the Brahms B minor quintet, and Palmer did a beautiful job blending the mellow tones of the clarinet unobtrusively with those of the strings in beautiful, swelling harmonies.
As always, the Pacifica was impressive both to hear and see. On stage they seemed to blend in with the instruments, moving with the tone and energy of the music. A passionate and proficient ensemble, the University of Chicago’s quartet-in-residence will perform again at Mandel Hall this coming January.