Review: Emotional Farewell to the Pacifica Quartet

The Pacifica Quartet
The Pacifica Quartet

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

Back in the last century the Pacifica Quartet made their first concert appearance at the University of Chicago. It was in Fulton Recital Hall, a rather small venue primarily used for student performances.

Yet it was the beginning of something big — 17 years big. The Pacifica Quartet came to the university as a one-year ensemble-in-residence. Their success led to several renewals of their status, culminating in their becoming the first-ever Don Michael Randel Ensemble in Residence at the university. This program is funded with a prestigious grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and is named after Don Randel, the musicologist and the former University of Chicago president.

This past Sunday commemorated the end of the Pacifica Quartet’s 17-year residency at the university. It was marked by a sold-out afternoon concert at the Logan Center for the Arts under the auspices of the University of Chicago Presents. Simin Ganatra, Sibbi Bernhardsson, Masumi Per Rosad, and Brandon Vamos came to Logan with their A-game and gave their fans a splendid performance from start to finish.

When the Pacifica Quartet first took the stage, several people in the audience stood to applaud them. Things settled down quickly and they dove into their concert.

It began with Mozart’s String Quartet No. 11 in F minor, Op. 122. They made the opening movement a frisky enterprise, paying close attention to dynamics and offering sunny and warm music. The inner movements were sly and then delightfully light of touch. The work concluded with rapid passages, sometimes a little rushed but mostly engaging in their excitement.

During their years as quartet in residence, the Pacifica had many achievements, including performing and recording the complete string quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich. So it was no surprise that one of the works on their final performance was the String Quartet No. 11 in F minor by Shostakovich. This short (roughly 16 minute) work was composed in 1966 after the death Vasily Shirinsky, a founding member of the Beethoven Quartet, an ensemble that had premiered nearly every string quartet by Shostakovich.

Throughout, the Pacifica players captured the brooding and melancholy nature of the music and they expertly performed all the swells and surges created by the composer. The recitativo movement was notable for its intense, almost spooky groans. This was followed by dramatic, racing passages in the first violin supported by detailed texture from the other strings. In the penultimate movement, there was pretty duo playing: both from the viola and cello together, later from the two violins. The finale had drama, from the ghostly sighs of the first violin to the puddle-drop pizzicato of the viola. This all set the stage for a quiet and moving conclusion.

After the intermission, the quartet took on a late Beethoven Quartet, his String Quartet in C-sharp minor, Op. 131. The opening was expressive, just as the composer marks the initial movement, and somber. This gave way to cheerfulness in the Allegro molto vivace. The variations in the Andante each had good shape, although the movement was slightly marred when Vamos appeared to have a spot of trouble grappling with his cello. The concluding Allego was fierce and was played with stinging intensity.

After a couple of curtain calls, the quartet played Beethoven’s original final movement of this quartet as their encore. It was delicate and hushed and followed by a standing ovation.

After the concert there was a lovely reception for the Pacifica Quartet, which gave audience members a chance to speak with the quartet members, who were all gracious and full of smiles. I asked Sibbi Bernhardsson what he will remember about Hyde Park and without a moment’s hesitation he said the loyal audiences. He noted that they had performed all around the world and hadn’t found any group of people more loyal than their followers in Hyde Park. He said he could actually name many folks who have been to every one of their concerts at the University of Chicago.

Brandon Vamos said that even though none of the quartet members ever lived in Hyde Park that they all had fond memories. He said he particularly enjoyed the Medici restaurant. He also noted that it was interesting to play in so many different venues on the campus. He said that it takes a bit of time to warm up to the Logan Center because the sound for a string quartet is a bit dry. But it is a nonetheless a fantastic place to play, he quickly added. When asked about his favorite performing venues, he said there were many, but the two that first came to mind were Wigmore Hall in London and the small hall at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.

Although they are no longer in residence at the university, fans can hear them again next year in Mandel Hall: they will be giving a concert next April in Mandel Hall as part of the University of Chicago Presents 2016-17 season.