Stormy weather and neighborhood road repair did not interfere with those who enjoyed this afternoon of top-flight music. The world-renowned Pacifica Quartet and guest artist Anthony McGill performed at Hayes Barton UMC in Raleigh on Sunday for the opening concert of Chamber Music Raleigh‘s Guild Series. The outstanding program featured mature works by three celebrated composers: W.A. Mozart, Johannes Brahms, and Shulamit Ran.

Pacifica opened with Mozart’s String Quartet No. 23 in F, K.590. First violinist Simin Ganatra led with spirit and conviction as cellist Brandon Vamos provided a buoyant foundation. With superb communication and musicality, the quartet sounded rich and full. I felt my back straighten without effort – better than a jolt of caffeine. It was a wonderful beginning.

Ran’s Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory for string quartet was commissioned for and premiered by Pacifica in Toronto, Ontario, for the 21C Music Festival in 2014. The ensemble has since traveled abroad introducing her composition and are currently performing it in cities across the United States. A Pulitzer Prize winner for music (second woman after Ellen Taaffe Zwilich), Ran has an impressive body of work. While this piece is tame in contrast to, say, Penderecki’s third quartet, Glitter is moving, and it was brilliantly performed. Listeners around me appeared spellbound.

Inspired by the artwork of Felix Nussbaum, Ran’s score is written in four sections. The first movement, “That which happened,” informs the listener of a narrative thread. Ran says that “pure music” and music that refers to a story or event can meld into one. She accomplished this by capturing contrasting textures – lyric bits of melody, clashing dissonance, eerie harmonics, and ominous-sounding tremolo – all of which added to the approaching darkness. The remaining movements “Menace,” “If I must perish, do not let my paintings die,” and “Shards, Memory” complete this tragic tale of art triumphing over death with power and gripping sensitivity. Ran’s music is beautiful and relevant. To view some of Nussbaum’s paintings click here.

Brahms’ tour de force, the Clarinet Quintet, Op. 115, is work that almost didn’t happen. I am ever so grateful to the nineteenth century virtuoso clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, who persuaded the retiring composer to writing just one more piece…. The resulting composition is magical. Performing with exquisite musical attention, Pacifica was joined by distinguished clarinetist and principal for the New York Philharmonic, Anthony McGill, for this outstanding reading.

Violinists Ganatra and Sibbi Berhnardsson played the octaves with perfect intonation. Ganatra created a sound like pure silk, especially the muted section of the Adagio. Violist Masumi Per Rostad, whose composure is stalwart, played with a deliciously warm tone. McGill”s sound was resonant and sweet. He performed with the lightness of a songbird where needed (in the first movement) and with breathtaking strength in the glorious flourishes in the third movement. His first entrance was like a stealth glider soaring above the strings, an opening that made way for Brahms’ most perfect workmanship. This was the kind of thrilling performance that proves music has great staying power. I was so moved I could barely get out of my seat for the standing ovation.

The concert made for a striking beginning for the 74th season of one of Raleigh’s most cherished musical institutions.

The Pacifica Quartet has a busy and impressive season. Have a look at their fall news.