By Kyle Macmillan | For Sun-Times Media
A key way that string quartets make their names and establish their legacies is by taking on a composer’s complete set of string quartets, a challenge that allows the ensembles to showcase their technical mettle and interpretative depth.
Pacifica Quartet When: 3 p.m. Oct. 12 Where: University of Chicago, Performance Hall, Logan Center for the Arts, 915 E. 60th Tickets: $25 Info: (773) 702-2787; chicagopresents.uchicago.edu
The ultimate proving ground are the 16 string quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven, which span the composer’s lifetime and reveal his radical musical evolution. Not far behind are the 15 quartets by Dmitri Shostakovich, which traverse the tumultuous career of the pivotal 20th-century Russian composer.
In September, Chicago-based Cedille Records released an 8-CD boxed set of the internationally recognized acclaimed Pacifica Quartet’s complete recordings of Shostakovich’s works – the ensemble’s most massive undertaking in its 20-year history.
“It’s something that we’re all proud of,” said the quartet’s violist, Masumi Per Rostad. “When you take on a project like that, you don’t know what is going to happen. We hadn’t played all the quartets. It was a lot to chew and digest.”
Fresh on the heels of that release, the Pacifica presents a concert Oct. 12 under the auspices of the University of Chicago, where it has been an artist-in-residence in one form or another since 1999.
As part of its residency activities during the 2014-15 season, the quartet will present three concerts on its own and another five performances as part of Contempo, a University of Chicago music collective that specializes in new music.
The centerpiece of the program is the U.S. premiere of “Glitter, Shards, Doom, Memory,” String Quartet No. 3, by Shulamit Ran, a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer who has taught at the University of Chicago since 1973.
“In working with student composers at the University of Chicago,” Rostad said, “she always has the most insightful comments, suggestions and criticisms that help us realize the music better, and we always take her insights and try to apply them to our own general rehearsal technique.”
At the behest of the Pacifica, Music Accord, an international organization of arts presenters, commissioned the new quartet by Ran. It is always impossible to know how such projects will turn out, Rostad said, and he admits some of the ensemble’s previous such undertakings have not always been successful.
But this, I think, is just a fantastic, fantastic quartet, he said. She really put her all into it. There is a wonderful structural arc. She really has something to say in the piece and through the music, and it’s written so well. It’s really a gratifying experience.
The work was inspired by Felix Nussbaum, a German-Jewish painter, and the many other artists who died in the Holocaust. Ran derived the work’s name from “Glitter and Doom,” the title of an exhibition of German art from 1919-1933 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2006-07.
“As in several other works composed since 1969,” wrote the Israeli-born composer in program notes for the quartet, “this is my way of saying, ‘Do not forget,’ something that I believe can be done through music with special power and poignancy.”
Also on the program are Felix Mendelssohn’s Quartet in F minor, Op. 80, and Beethoven’s Quartet in E minor, Op. 59, No. 2, “Razumovsky.”
After performing the set (or cycle, as it is termed in the classical world) of Beethoven quartets during concerts at six venues across Chicago in 2007-08, the Pacifica was thinking about what to do next. At a concluding dinner, Henry Fogel, former president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, asked: “Have you thought about Shostakovich?”
The quartet seized on the idea. Having already recorded the complete quartets of Elliott Carter and Felix Mendelssohn and tackled Beethoven’s works in concert, they felt ready to take on Shostakovich. And Cedille Records signed on to the project.
The album series, titled “The Soviet Experience,” was originally released in installments from September 2011 through November 2013, and includes works by four other Russian composers as context – Nikolai Miaskovsky, Sergei Prokofiev, Alfred Schnittke and Mieczyslaw Weinberg.
Unlike other composers like Beethoven, Rostad said, Shostakovich’s often spare writing leaves considerable room for interpretations. Pacifica’s take emerged out of the extensive performances and discussions it was involved in as part of the recording project.
“So, in terms of our final interpretation, at least for the recording,” he said, “it’s kind of where we ended up having gone through the whole cycle: what we began to think about Shostakovich – the soul behind the music and the intellect behind the music.”
Rostad was expecting the works to be suffused with bleakness, given the Soviet Union’s grim history, but he was surprised to discover how beautiful much of the music is and how uplifting and light in spirit it can be.
“And the other thing is, not one quartet is bad,” he said. “I think it’s all great music. I don’t think there are any duds in there. It’s a great trajectory through the 15 quartets.”
With the release of the boxed set of its Shostakovich quartets behind it, the Pacific is once again asking: What’s next? And the answer seems to be recording all the Beethoven quartets.
“We’ve been in talks with Cedille about it,” Rostad said, “and it’s in the works. The question is timing and logistics, because it’s such a big, big project.”
Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.