Pacifica Quartet

The Pacifica Quartet performed Shostakovich for University of Chicago Presents. 

The University of Chicago Presents offered a streamed concert Friday night featuring a Hyde Park favorite, the Pacifica Quartet. Early in their career, they were resident performing artists for 17 years at the University of Chicago, offering numerous concerts, and they developed a substantial and devoted fan base in our community.

The streaming event was relatively short — just over 40 minutes — with 90 percent of that devoted to music and the other ten percent to introductions. The single work on their program was Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 2, recorded at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University this past summer.

Shostakovich wrote the quartet in 1944 while a resident at a Soviet “House of Rest and Creativity” in Ivanovo, a government retreat in a rustic setting where composers and writers could work in peace and seclusion. His workspace was in a poultry barn. In his introduction, violist Mark Holloway noted that this work is “one of their favorite pieces to play,” and it showed. He, along with violinists Simin Ganatra and Austin Hartman and cellist Brandon Vamos, offered an exciting, bracing, and moving performance.

The opening movement, titled “Overture”, put the quartet’s vigor and robust energy on clear display. Loud yells alternated with soft cries, and bright tone gave way to the composer’s strident second theme. The quartet adeptly exploited the tension to the very end.

The “Recitative and Romance” showcased Ganatra’s lyrical skills, as she took on the composer’s plaintive melody and drew out its brooding nature, while the other players offered gently sustained chordal support. The sound was engrossing, at times even haunting. 

The third movement, a “valse macabre,” was performed with mutes. Vamos was beautifully sly as he introduced the theme, and all four players brought mystery and shadow to the music.

The concluding movement, “Theme with variations,” was full of Klezmer-inspired dance melodies that whirled and swirled with increasingly frenetic excitement. Vamos dug down for the growling low notes and Holloway had an opportunity to really make the viola dance. The conclusion was more than satisfying, and left the audience wanting more.

The camera work was fantastic, with definition so clear you felt you were there. I particularly liked the shots from a camera directly above them, never before having had a bird’s eye view of a string quartet in action.

You need a ticket to view these new streams, and UChicago Presents has their own method of broadcasting which requires a bit of setup. I found it somewhat complicated, but can say with enthusiasm that not only is it worth it, the online technical support is absolutely superb. I found every problem was solved quickly, and the techs were kind, cheerful, and effective. Bravi!

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