Programming new music is one of the issues facing the contemporary classical musician. Innovation must be supported if the art is to remain alive, and, yet, there is always the risk of alienating a rapidly dwindling audience. A program of all modern works could be a rather unappealing concert to the average listener, so programs that sneak a modern composition in between two long-established classics is one standard solution. Not to say that all contemporary compositions are difficult to understand. On the contrary, much of the music written today is, perhaps, easier for a modern audience to listen to than music written two hundred years ago.
Still, whatever the piece is actually like, the appellation of "new" carries with it such weight that composers and performers alike must put great effort in order to get an audience to warm up to something unfamiliar. One method of approaching this problem inherent to new music is to link the composition with some great canonical work. This was the device the Brentano String Quartet employed in their recent concert project "Bach Perspectives," in which they managed to expose the audience to ten different contemporary composers by commissioning short works from them that are linked to the Art of the Fugue.
On Friday, the Pacifica Quartet, artists-in-residence at the University of Chicago, presented a concert at Mandel Hall with similarly linked compositions. The quartet played Marta Ptaszynska's Mosaics, a piece dedicated to and premiered by the Pacifica Quartet in 2002. Mosaics is, in the composer's words, "a homage to Beethoven's Große Fuge." The connection between the two pieces is readily apparent. Instead of the homage being completely theoretical in a way that would not be understood by a listener who has no background in analysis, references to Beethoven's timeless workthe original finale of the String Quartet, Op. 130can be heard by anyone casually familiar with it. As if to drive the connection home, the Pacifica Quartet played another of Beethoven's late quartets, the C-sharp minor, Op. 131, to fill the second half of the program. Haydn's quartet, Op. 64, No. 5, "The Lark," started the evening off, nestling the new composition nicely between the standards.
The Haydn is not so much a quartet as a violin solo with string trio accompaniment. This is not atypical for Haydnthough the showcasing of the first violin is especially pronounced hereas the finale is a perpetuum mobile of virtuosic flair. Violinist Simin Ganatra was up to the task, putting forth a fantastic display of brilliance with an air of ease. Indeed, the whole piece was performed with a playful attitude, making the work lively and beautiful. At times in the finale, the performers' zeal got the best of them, and their tones lost some control; but through most of the piece, they played exquisitely.
Mosaics turned out to be both engaging and disengaging at the same time. The efforts to make it appeal to the audience did not fail, and it was well received. Ptaszynska, who is on the faculty at the U of C, was present at the concert to receive a hearty applause. The piece was, in addition to the material linking it with the Grosse Fuge, an effects piece. Ptaszynska used a myriad of techniques to produce unique sounds from the string instruments. One especially pleasant sound was an imitation of bird song. The effects ranged from simple, large glissandi to the rapid tapping of the fingerboards with all instrumentalists' fingers. The latter was, perhaps, a bit much, bringing the piece into the realm of spectacle. But Mosaics is not simply a work of novelties. Though the various effects did fascinate, there was more to the piece. It was well conceived and filled with complex subtleties. And yet, where the work succeeds in individual, engaging sections, it is slightly lacking on the whole, being slightly too episodic and failing to have a convincing, unified, and emotional trajectory. However, with the expert performance by Pacifica, Mosaics was a welcome part of the program.
The highlight of the evening was clearly the Beethoven quartet. Ganatra dropped her solo act from the Haydn, and the quartet played as one in the way one always hopes a string quartet will. They responded to Beethoven's manipulation of the structural flow with elegant transitions between movements and brilliant ebb and flow of tempi within movements. The fourth movement provided the most sublimity of the evening. It was a theme and variations in which the variations followed such a perfect progression as to render the start of each subsequent variation relatively indistinguishable from the end of the previous one. The Pacifica Quartet brought a beautiful fluidity to the piece with this detailed transitional work from variation to variation and finely executed dynamic and metrical builds. There was also some appropriate playfulness within the variations, working off of some surprising, and surprisingly loud, pizzicati. All in all, the movement provided moments of both poignancy and enjoyable cleverness. Such was the performance of the entire piece, making it a truly wonderful performance.