Pacifica Quartet quietly introduces newest member

Photo courtesy of the Ravinia Festival
The Pacifica Quartet

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

The Pacifica Quartet, formed in 1994, had no personnel changes for 17 years when last spring two members announced they were leaving the ensemble. Violinist Sibbi Bernhardsson accepted a teaching position at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and violist Masumi Per Rostad took a similar position at the Eastman School of Music. The two remaining founding members of the quartet—husband and wife Simin Ganatra (violin) and Brandon Vamos (cello)—were then joined by new members Austin Hartman (violin) and Guy Ben-Ziony (viola).

Less than a full year into the new job, Ben-Ziony has left the group. It appears to have been announced for the first time at quartet’s concert on Saturday night at Bennett Gordon Hall at Ravinia via a program insert the size of an index card which, in tiny letters, read, “Please recognize and welcome Mark Holloway as the new violist of the Pacifica Quartet.”

Although cellist Vamos spoke briefly to the audience just before the second work on the program (to say a few words about Bartok’s String Quartet No. 4), not a word was uttered about the group’s new lineup. The Ravinia program contained a photo of the group with Ben-Ziony and not Holloway, Ravinia offered a similar photo for publication, and as of Herald press time, the Pacifica Quartet’s website only had foursome photos with Ben-Ziony, although when identifying individual members, Holloway’s individual photo and biography appears.

Why Ben-Ziony left remains unknown.

The Pacifica Quartet is well-known to Hyde Parkers, having served for 17 years as the resident performing artist at the University of Chicago. They are scheduled to perform next spring as part of the University of Chicago Presents 75th anniversary season.

In spite of this unexpected and sudden change, the Pacifica Quartet took to the stage on Saturday and offered vibrant and cohesive playing. Holloway is less physically flamboyant than the other members of the quartet, but his viola fit in beautifully, and the group provided well-oiled and close-knit music-making. They were pleasingly united.

The highlight of the performance was Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 3 in D major. From the outset the sound was genial and the ensemble played with eagerness. There was thrilling brilliance of sound from Ganatra’s first violin and at second violin, Hartman offered subdued but fascinating support. There was lightness from Vamos’s cello and Holloway’s viola flourishes were spun off with aplomb.

Throughout the work there were admirable dynamic changes and the performers brought a lovely singing clarity to the score. There was splendid cello work in the “Andante” and an explosively bold and bright approach to the final movement. The presto sections were impressive: they were rapid, nimble, unsmudged examples of joyful music.

The concert opened with Haydn’s String Quartet No. 60. The opening “Allegro” found all four strings well-coordinated, and immediately showed that new member Holloway’s approach to the music matched that of his new ensemble. The unaccompanied early cello line was aptly rendered by Vamos and Holloway offered a pleasing answer on the viola.

The “Adagio” featured stylish cello work in the repeated arpeggios and some rich sound in the violins. The “Menuetto” began with frisky playing although the Ländler section saw a somewhat heavy approach from the first violin. The “Finale” featured fine work from the viola in the opening moments as well as excellent work by the two violins working together. The conclusion was exciting and well-pleased the audience.

Bartok’s String Quartet No. 4 was given an earnest, sincere, and enthusiastic treatment by the quartet. The various moving parts were clearly articulated and Bartok’s show-offy movement conclusion was well rendered. There was quiet sizzle in the “Prestissimo” and a pretty smile at the end. The cello work in the central movement was contemplative and slowly developed into music more urgent, colorful, and passionate.

The Allegretto featured attractive pizzicato work. The concluding movement was anchored by the cello and was hard-driving. The violins provided strong agitation before the “pesante” section, reprised from the first movement, brought the quartet to a close.

I look forward to hearing this new lineup of the Pacifica Quartet again when they come to Hyde Park on Fri., Apr. 12, 2019. On the program of this Mandel Hall concert: Beethoven’s String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 18, No. 6; a world premiere of a new work by David Dzubay; and the Mendelssohn string quartet reviewed here.

The University of Chicago Presents (UCP) website already lists the new Pacifica violist, showing that Amy Iwano, the executive director of UCP, stays on top of developments in the music world. Hardly surprising. She is almost certainly the most influential music programmer on the entire South Side of Chicago. And she does her homework: she was in the audience on Saturday night.