It was the kind of homecoming South Side native clarinet star Anthony McGill most enjoys. No speeches, no singling him out, just the chance to play great classical music with highly collaborative colleagues and a keenly attentive audience.
In this case, Sunday afternoon at the still pretty spankingly-new Logan Center for the Arts Performance Hall on The University of Chicago’s South Campus, that was an audience that included some who had known McGill, 34, principal clarinet of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York, and his older brother Demarre, now principal flute of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, since they began music lessons in the 1970s blocks away. Others filling the 474-seat, acoustically superb hall were fans of the still-youthful but increasingly masterful Pacifica Quartet, now in a Mellon Foundation-endowed position at UC as the first Don Michael Randel Ensemble-in-Residence and marking its 20th anniversary.
Soloist and quartet came together for masterworks of Mozart and Brahms (what McGill loves best) — each played in rich, unadorned, seamless performances. There is far from enough repertoire for a permanent clarinet and strings quintet, but you would have thought that McGill and Pacifica were indeed such a quintet, so attuned were they to each other and to the music.
The two half-hour supernovas of the genre were composed a century apart, each for the leading clarinetist of his day who so captivated these composers that they either set aside other work (Mozart) or retirement (Brahms) to craft them. Mozart essentially invented the genre in 1789 with his A Major, K. 591 composition for Anton Stadler. Brahms made deep study of the Mozart work in creating his own dark and introspective B minor piece, Op. 115 in 1891, for Richard Muhlfeld.
McGill and Pacifica offered both pieces with deep understanding and period appropriateness. With breath and volume control that allows him to play at the quietest pianissimos, McGill can blend in with strings in a way that there is no sense of “guest starring.” There were sprightly dances of equal partners and developments of themes without the annoying, grinning “sitting in” quality that sometimes happens when concert soloists and ensembles make underrehearsed chamber music together. The delicate variation by violist Masumi Per Rostad in the last movement of the Mozart was the first of several times in the afternoon that many concertgoers had tears in their eyes.
After intermission, the Brahms was almost operatically astonishing. In the complex Adagio, Brahms’ meditation on Mozart’s genius in part, there is a sense of being on a sort of musical ship swaying in heavy weather. And there were McGill and cellist Brandon Vamos, swaying, probably unintentionally in synch, not for effect, but both carried away by and attentive to the music. A similar thing happens with McGill himself. Where some soloists make a certain show when they dig down into the low-end of the wind instrument’s range, you can see McGill plant his feet and brace his upper body precisely so that he will disappear into the deep sound.
At the heartbreaking end of the piece, a silence descended over the hall — audience and players alike. It stayed there for moments until it reached that transformative moment that art can bring; the perfect depiction of sadness or resignation leads to unbridled joy in the listeners’ hearts.