The Pacifica Quartet shines in its return to Hyde Park

Members of the Pacifica Quartet perform Friday evening at Mandel Hall; (left to right) Simin Ganatra (violin), Austin Hartman (violin), Brandon Vamos (cello) and Mark Holloway (viola). (Photo by Owen M. Lawson)

By M.L. RANTALA
Music critic

Founded in 1994, the Pacifica Quartet is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. For many of those years — 17 to be exact — they were ensemble-in-residence at the University of Chicago and gave multiple Hyde Park concerts a year.

They started out at the university with a one-year residency. Their success and popularity led to several renewals, and they eventually became the first-ever Don Michael Randel Ensemble in Residence, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and named after Don Randel, the musicologist and former president of the University of Chicago.

They marked the end of their 17 years at the university in April of 2016 with a sold-out concert at the Logan Center. They returned to the University of Chicago’s Mandel Hall on Friday night, under the auspices of University of Chicago Presents, to a crowd which included a large number of people who have become dedicated fans over the years.

Friday night was the first chance for Hyde Parkers to see the Pacifica Quartet since their last personnel change. From approximately 2001 to 2018 they had the same line-up of four players, but in the spring of 2018 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 (first violin) and Brandon Vamos (cello) — are now joined by Austin Hartman (second violin) and Mark Holloway (viola). The latter first performed with the quartet last August in a concert at Ravinia.

In that first concert with their newest configuration, they made the biggest impression with Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 3 in D major. That work was also on the program Friday night, and again the Pacifica made the work shine. (Amy Iwano, executive director of the University of Chicago Presents, noted that “the new members have made a seamless transition,” in her remarks just before the concert began.)

The Pacifica Quartet knows how to draw out the genial nature of Mendelssohn’s music and how to shape its melodies, contrasts, and drama. Ganatra had pretty, ringing tone in the first violin lines, and led the ensemble in a glistening performance.

The Andante espressivo movement was particularly notable for its expressiveness which was never marred by excessive emotionalism. The concluding Presto proceeded at a frisky pace which was both nimble and clear. All the joy and excitement were there, rendered with superb technical and musical precision.

The first work on the program was Beethoven’s String Quartet in F-flat major, the last of the first set of string quartets the composer wrote. The quartet drew out the shining sound of the short but spirited opening movement. The Adagio was detailed and delicate, although seemed to drag at one point. The Scherzo was brisk and bracing, with the trio section particularly engaging. The final movement begins with what Beethoven dubbed “La Malinconia” and indeed it was imbued with melancholy. This was followed by the concluding Allegretto which the Pacifica rendered in a lovely dancing manner.

Sandwiched between these two works was a new piece by David Dzubay, String Quartet No. 2, “Oceanic,” composed specifically for the Pacifica Quartet and funded with support from the Fromm Music Foundation at Harvard.

The composer was at the concert and offered some brief remarks. His introduction to the piece showed him to be an expressive, friendly man and his new quartet is also an expressive, friendly piece. The five movements each take a different look at an ocean, concentrating on such things as an ice breaker charging through frozen water or the gasps of a swimmer caught in a riptide.

The music had pleasing elements, and between the composer’s spoken notes and his written notes in the program, you could create your own story to accompany the music. The programic nature of the music is its strongest point, as it definitely has a “film music” element to it.

Dzubay employs a lot of extended techniques for the players (for example, tapping on the instrument as if it were percussion), creating unusual sounds. There were screechy moments that sounded like sea birds, and wild glissandos invoking nature. At times you might have thought that the foursome had turned into a crew of Foley artists working on a movie.

The melodies are wide-ranging and include what seem to be jazz elements at times. The work is episodic, moving from one idea to another, and it has splendid propulsion at times, moving forward with vigor. But at 23 minutes, it seems rather long for the number of ideas it involves.

Dzubay was good enough to offer to me his own impression of the work done by the quartet with his work. He said that they gave “a sunny performance and brought the piece to life.” He added that the Pacifica Quartet would be performing this work a few more times and that he might make some tweaks to it.

Dzubay will be in Hyde Park again later this season. He will conduct the Grossman Ensemble in a program that will include, among other things, another of his new works. That concert takes place on Fri., Jun. 7 at 7:30 p.m. at the Logan Center. Visit chicagopresents.uchicago.edu for tickets or more information.