Review: Pacifica Quartet Mixes Fun and Melancholy in Season Opener

Pacifica Quartet opened their 2023-24 season with an excellent concert at Hyde Park’s Mandel Hall on Friday evening. Based in Bloomington, Indiana, this year they are the Don Michael Randel Ensemble–in–Residence of the University of Department of Music. They will be playing a second concert in January as part of the UChicago Presents series.

On Friday they offered a program of modern and contemporary music in the first half and one of the greatest pieces of music ever written in the second. In doing so they displayed an expressive and animated stage presence, all while creating fun, serious, and melancholic sounds. This program allowed them to showcase broad technical capabilities and an exceptional ensemble sound.

First to be performed was Sergei Prokofiev’s String Quartet No. 2 in F-major. Written in 1941, Prokofiev composed this at time when the Soviet Union was being ravaged by the invasion of Nazi Germany. As the program notes pointed out, even though World War II was blaring nearby, this quartet bears no reference whatsoever to these extraordinary events. Instead, it turns some light and charming Kabardinian folk music from the Caucuses, to where Prokofiev had been evacuated, into a three-movement merry-go-round. And what a fun ride it is!

Pacifica Quartet. Photo by Yuanjian Liu.

The opening movement, Allegro sostenuto is moderate-paced frolic with march-like rhythms. Being a modern work in a traditional major key, it moves harmonically between tonal and atonal. Prokofiev made this aural palette seem completely natural. Pacifica’s effervescence came through as the quartet tackled things with a very energetic feel.

In the slower second movement Adagio and the faster finale, Allegro: Andante molto, Prokofiev asked the ensemble to recreate virtually every type of sound and bowing technique possible from stringed instruments. Pacifica demonstrated great dexterity in moving between bowed and plucked sounds and playing with the back of the bow, on the violin’s bridge, and behind the violin’s bridge. The music makes a jarring stop after the finale’s exposition, and the Pacifica showed precise technique.

They then played a quartet by Sean Shepherd, a visiting Assistant Professor to the School of Music. In String Quartet No 3, Shepard offered a great deal of contrast and mood swings in 10 short minutes. Originally from Reno, Nevada, Shepard is now based at the University of Chicago. This work showed off a clear understanding of the string quartet’s aural possibilities.

The opening movement Hot/Cold starts with quick flashes followed by long tones forming foggy chords with notes adjacent to one another on the scale. The harmonic tension Pacifica created was misty. The second movement Before and After the two Bs, refers to Bartók and Boulez. As the score requested, Pacifica gave it a Very seriously jaunty feel. The finale, Bottomless, used very few high notes, with the playing largely in the instruments’ lower strings. It also brought forth a lot of contrasts between muted and unmuted sounds. Pacifica reproduced it seamlessly.

Pacifica Quartet. Photo by Yuanjian Liu.

The second half of the program was devoted to one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet no. 15 in a-minor, Op. 132. At the end of his life, Beethoven produced five towering masterpieces that completed his 30-year effort to transform and the string quartet and classical music into a whole new sound dimension. Three of these works have more than the usual four movements, with this quartet having five. These innovations allowed a dramatic expansion of the expressive possibilities of an ensemble formed by two violins, viola, and cello.

The feeling that most pervades this work is melancholy, which starts from the chords based around the last four notes of the harmonic minor scale. In the only sag in this evening’s performance, the Pacifica Quartet was a bit sloppy with these chords. The note endings that were not their typical sharpness. Things quickly recovered, and these chords were much better later in the movement.

Aside from that, this performance had all the other important features of this great music. In the oddly structured sonata-form opening movement, Assai sostenuto–Allegro Beethoven eases the sadness with a pleasant and uplifting secondary theme. Pacifica provided the right amount of wistful levity in these sections.

The minuet-like second movement, Allegro ma non tanto, returns to lighter themes with a middle section that features an A-major drone from the lower instruments while the first violin plays a dreamy tune. It’s almost as if Beethoven had visited the Scottish Highlands and heard some bagpipes. Of course he never traveled there, but it’s very reminiscent of that sound, which Pacifica captured well.

The centerpiece of this quartet is the Heiliger Dankesang, a 20-minute meditation unlike anything else in the entire classical music repertoire. Beethoven composed it while recovering from a major illness, and he wrote in the score, as translated, “Holy song of thanksgiving to the Gods from a convalescent in the Lydian mode.” The Lydian mode is a medieval church intonation centered on note F, but only using the seven white keys on the piano. The fourth note in the key of F-major is a b-flat; in the Lydian mode, it’s b-natural. It gives the music a whole different effect.

In these challenging times, this music is an ideal place to take solace, and Pacifica delivered with the right tempos, great blending, and perfect levels of reflection. Beethoven interrupts the meditations twice with some contrasting lightness that came through wonderfully on Friday night. This performance left me feeling refreshed, glad to be alive, as Beethoven clearly intended.

Following the meditation is a march-like fourth movement that transitions into the finale, a lilting Allegro appassionato. Beethoven used a tune he had considered for the 9th Symphony before going with a vocal finale. The performers added to the mood by swaying to the melody. Among the many remarkable aspects of this performance is the preservation of tonality for the duration of this 45-minute work without once having to re-tune.

Pacifica Quartet will return to the stage at Logan Center Performance Hall on January 28, 2024, 915 East 60th Street, Hyde Park, 3:00 pm. Click here for more information about this and other UChicago Presents performances.

Louis Harris
Louis Harris

A lover of music his whole life, Louis Harris has written extensively from the early days of punk and alternative rock. More recently he has focused on classical music, especially chamber ensembles. He has reviewed concerts, festivals, and recordings and has interviewed composers and performers. He has paid special attention to Chicago’s rich and robust contemporary art music scene. He occasionally writes poetry and has a published novel to his credit, 32 Variations on a Theme by Basil II in the Key of Washington, DC. He now lives on the north side of Chicago, which he considers to be the greatest city in the country, if not the world. Member of the Music Critics Association of North America.