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October 13, 2003

Emerson and Pacifica throw rollicking birthday bash for Mandel Hall

It was a rather glorious night. Last Friday night, an excited audience did not only celebrate "100 years of music-making at Mandel Hall" (a worthy cause rather difficult to comprehend fully; few audience members, it can safely be said, were around on December 21, 1903 to witness a performance of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra). No, Mandel Hall also saw, in the midst of the current baseball mania, an eruption of local U of C enthusiasm at a chamber music concert, of all events. What happened?

No more, no less than this: In yet another example of her oft-praised planning skills, series director Marna Seltzer had brought together, on this festive occasion, the Emerson and Pacifica String Quartets. The Emersons are a world-famous veteran ensemble, a shining star on chamber music heaven, widely known for their unmatched virtuosity and their adventurous minds. The Pacifica, on the other hand, is still a young and aspiring group, beloved by many members of the University community both for its frequent performances and its work as wise educators of student chamber musicians. To see the local team paired up with the superstars for a performance of Felix Mendelssohn's early Octet op. 20—a rarely played work for two string quartets—was exhilarating.

Musical ensemble playing is, or should be, somewhat less antagonistic than sports, and so the stunning success of this collaboration consisted precisely in the perfect blend achieved by these two very different ensembles. True, the Pacifica paid tribute to the presence of the Emersons as far as the performance as a whole was concerned. All four movements were executed rather swiftly, especially the highly contrapuntal finale, which all eight attacked at a truly breathtaking speed. Thus, the Emerson virtuosity imperative was duly heeded.

But in the ensemble playing itself, all was unity. The different status of the two groups was quickly forgotten after the outburst of enthusiasm that followed the Pacifica's appearance on stage had subsided. Concentrating fully on the musical product of Mendelssohn's blossoming youthful genius, the Pacifica showed neither signs of shyness nor intimidation, nor did they unwarrantedly play themselves into the foreground. For those who have witnessed their fast-paced maturation process in the past years, Friday night was a memorable event. All fans of the Pacifica Quartet will impatiently look forward to their next appearance at Mandel Hall on November 21.

Before the intermission, the Emersons played Beethoven's late Quartet in A Minor, op. 132. This piece, too, has become something of a favorite at Mandel Hall lately. Last year, both the venerable Guarneri Quartet and the Pacifica played it, the former as a season-opener, the latter at a legendary concert alongside Schubert's String Quintet in C, in a night that exhausted audience and performers alike. As was expected, the Emersons offered a technically refined and perfectly controlled rendition of this inscrutable score, a performance of highest caliber. They brought out the dynamic contrasts in the singularly monothematic second movement well. Their well-tempered ensemble sound was particularly successful in the slow middle movement, the austere and atavistic "Holy Song of Thanksgiving by a Convalescent to the Divinity" (though their tempo there was "not slow enough," as a friend of mine later observed). The ending of the finale was delivered with verve, precision, and elegance.

The Emersons have a tendency to sound somewhat streamlined—they are the true Friedrich Guldas of the string quartet world—and when it comes to the jagged soundscapes of late Beethoven one might at times wish for a rawer and more fragile sound. Too high a level of technical perfection and self-assuredness can, paradoxically, be a disadvantage in interpreting music that itself threatens to disintegrate at every other moment.

Their performance was, however, controlled and balanced enough to allow the formal structure of the movements to show itself, helping the listener follow Beethoven's ways. Such help is much needed, for Beethoven's late style, for the most part, makes little concessions to the listener. If great music can unfold its truth only in and through the experience of music itself—and not merely through an analytic reading of a mute score—then one can begin to wonder if the apparent greatness of this music is available to us at all. The first and last movements of the string quartet especially contain a rapid succession of motifs, themes, transitions, contrasts, and ideas, all perhaps connected by some logic of unity or disunity, of necessary connection or absurd intervention. Beethoven, the composer of ideas, apparently wishes to express and communicate something, but his manner of presentation is that of a mathematician who presents his proof without the intermediary steps, the sage who utters pithy truths purged of the wealth of experience that led to their formulation. Unlike the expansiveness of Schubert's late work, and even Beethoven's own rather more careful thematic developments in the early and middle period works, this music no longer takes us, as it were, by the hand, no longer allows us to follow along on its path. It ignores us and our helplessness.

Like the sage, Beethoven seems to demand our trust, a certain faithful belief that some human experience stands behind this work. But such trust is undermined, as there is little reason that Beethoven is a "benevolent" authority. His fits of temper are legendary, and during the second movement of Op. 132, the ground begins to tremble when one begins to realize that the guiding idea behind the movement might simply be to bore the listener. Moreover, such trust is inconceivable. "If you don't feel it, you shall never hunt it down," Faust says to his geeky student Wagner. Likewise, there can be no adequate hearing of a piece unless one is able to grasp intuitively every moment of the artwork, unless one can move in and with the work at every instant. Such listening is perhaps impossible, utopian. If it is, then perhaps beauty itself is unattainable.