The Pacifica Quartet
Four years ago, a few weeks before Elliott Carter's 100th birthday (he'll be turning 104 in December), the Pacifica Quartet, at the Longy school's Pickman Hall. played a memorable version of Carter's complex Third String Quartet, and the group has also recorded all five of the Carter quartets. So the Pacifica is no stranger to challenging contemporary music. They were back at Pickman in the Celebrity Series of Boston with the world premiere of a string quartet called Return, composed for them by MIT composer Keeril Makan and co-commissioned by the Celebrity Series and the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival.
It's a single movement, clocking in at approximately 14 minutes, with 24 continuous sections. Here are some of the composer's indicators: A distant landscape getting closer—distant again—expectant—awkward—suave—expectant (again)—obdurate—that distant landscape getting closer (again)—menacing—suddenly precious. . . . And ending: with fortitude—nervous—too close—crisis—suddenly precious (yet again)—aware of being alone—desperate.
The musical kernels are simple and not especially interesting in themselves, but the way Makan assembles them creates a powerful subliminal narrative, the underlying emotional journey, as he described it both directly and evasively to the audience, of an expectedly happy return visit to an artist colony in Italy that turned unexpectedly dark. Repeated episodes "return" the way memory does, always with some slight difference. The "distant landscape" of the beginning — a quiet, intense, long held viola note eventually joined by the other instruments — ends up as the "desperate" return to the solo viola, only this time, finally, completely alone. The "suddenly precious" sections were especially lovely moments of quiet nostalgia. I'm not sure the crisis points felt as scary or as desolate as Makan may have intended, but the whole piece had an undeniable cumulate power.
The sold-out concert began with a lovely performance of Mozart's heavenly Clarinet Quintet, K. 581, in A — a late work composed in 1789, just before his ironic/romantic comic opera, Cosí fan tutte (which has some of Mozart's most luscious music for clarinet) and two years before his Clarinet Concerto, also in A and written for the same clarinetist, Anton Stadler.
The clarinetist here was Anthony McGill, who, along with Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, and Gabriela Montero, played the new John Williams piece at President Obama's inauguration. More important, he's a member of James Levine's magnificent Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. It's surely no coincidence that he plays with such supple, "vocal" phrasing and singing tone. He also played the quintet as chamber music, not as a concerto with four accompanying strings, and the ensemble work was delectable.
The concert ended with one of the most demanding of all string quartets, Beethoven's late seven-movement Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Opus 131. The performance began better than it ended. In the long, slow third-movement variations (Andante ma non troppo e molto cantabile — i.e., not too slow and very songful), the players seem to have lost their sense of direction. The movement felt endless rather than timeless. And so as if they were trying to make up for this meandering, they ended up overplaying the three following movements. By the time of the demonic last-movement Dance of Death, the Pacifica's beautiful unforced tone had morphed into something considerably more strident. I wish the Quartet had chosen a shorter work to conclude the concert, which might have provided the opportunity to return to Return, doubly bringing home Makan's point about memory and giving the audience a chance to hear this compelling new work again.