It would be hard to find a contemporary chamber group more accomplished than the Pacifica Quartet, and their collaboration with acclaimed clarinetist Anthony McGill made their performance at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts even more special.

The quartet – comprised of violinists Simin Ganatra and Austin Hartman, violist Mark Holloway, and cellist Brandon Vamos – started on its own with Dvořák’s “American” Quartet in F, Op. 96. Dvořák’s twelfth quartet, composed in the same year as his “New World Symphony,” is full of American influences, reflecting his musical experiences during his time in the states. The African-American spirituals Dvořák connected so strongly with can clearly be heard, but the Pacifica Quartet’s performance felt more evocative of the westward expansion that occurred throughout the 19th Century and that no doubt had an impact on the people Dvořák met in the 1890s. Their playing conjured a desert sunrise welcoming travelers hopeful of new possibilities, full of perky naivete. The way the quartet used Dvořák’s fusion of old “classical” harmonies and new “American” harmonies was particularly effective, playing with the listener’s expectations and reminding them of the so-called melting pot that Dvořák found himself in. It all culminated with a satisfying arrival in the fourth and final movement, offering the travelers a ride into the sunset, fantastic enough to bring some audience members to their feet in applause – and this was just the first piece of the night.

McGill joined the quartet onstage for the second and third pieces on the program, the first of these being James Lee III‘s Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet, a piece about the connections between Black and Indigenous America. Lee was inspired by paintings depicting Indigenous peoples of America, and each movement fused the music of those peoples with the music of Black composers like himself, Nathaniel Dett, and William Dawson. In this piece, I was especially impressed by the quintet’s ability to use harmonies as percussive devices in themselves. Their verve gave the piece the intentionality it needed to be persuasive in depicting the images Lee put in the music. Equally impressive was McGill’s emulation of Indigenous wind instruments on his clarinet. Especially in the third movement, McGill played the tremendously difficult arpeggios and runs flawlessly, representing the natural, wind-like spirit of the music exactly the way it is supposed to be. Similar to the Dvořák quartet, Lee’s work brought together multiple American influences but managed to produce an entirely different, yet emotionally-charged message, perfectly executed by the quintet.

McGill returned for the final piece of the program, Brahms’ Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet in B minor, Op. 115. The quintet’s performance of this piece brought out all the best elements of Brahms, and as I had never heard a clarinet piece by the composer, I was surprised to hear how much more life the extra instrument injected into his already superb musical voice. The melodic acuity of each player brought out that feeling of Brahms’ painfully beautiful melodies that hold you tightly and do not let go. Each note had its place and purpose in the music and each phrase was so exact that I could feel every rise and fall of every musical thought. The ensemble was so engaging I even found myself breathing along with them. They gave the piece the tender love and care required of every Brahms performance, with so much attention paid to the details that it somehow comes across as effortless.

The Pacifica Quartet and Anthony McGill played three pieces spanning only two time periods, yet the amount of ground they covered historically, culturally, thematically, and musically was astounding. To be able to play all three of these pieces is one thing, but to be able to play each of them with the respect and attention they deserve is an entirely different beast. It truly was a pleasure to hear such an acclaimed group of musicians perform, and with such energy and love behind their playing, it is clear that their immense success is well-deserved.