Duke Performances presented the Pacifica Quartet in Reynolds Industries Theatre on the anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr. The ensemble’s guest artist for the evening was Anthony McGill, the distinguished clarinetist (principal of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra) whose participation in the inauguration of President Obama brought him worldwide attention and fame. (We first heard him years ago at Marlboro, in the company of the late Dorothy Bone, widow of Duke Music Department mainstay Allan Hadley Bone, who was himself a clarinetist; Dorothy was in awe of McGill’s talent, even then – as were we.)

The quartet, whose members are Simin Ganatra and Sibbi Bernhardsson, violins, Masumi Per Rostad, viola, and Brandon Vamos, cello, made its first Chamber Arts Society performance on this occasion, but the concert was the group’s third in the Triangle since its NC debut in Raleigh – clouded by ice and snow – almost seven years ago. Pacifica also played a “make-up” concert in Raleigh in the spring of 2007.

The ensemble’s ticket to fame has been its impassioned championship of new music in general and the quartets of Elliott Carter, in particular. As a “second generation” group, following in this regard in the wake of the Juilliard String Quartet, Pacifica has in effect made Carter’s music its own, for music lovers who are willing to make the necessary investment in our greatest living composer’s most significant body of work.

In Durham, however, the most contemporary item on the program was Shostakovich’s 1964 String Quartet No. 10, Op. 118. The violist, a strikingly tall artist who even when seated towers over his colleagues, introduced the work to the packed house; his remarks were welcome despite the inclusion in the program of excerpts from Melvin Berger’s essay on the piece (from the widely-admired Guide to Chamber Music). The performance reflected Pacifica’s close study of this quartet, one of 15 by the great Russian master; the ensemble is engaged in performing and recording all of them, and based on this rendition, the complete set will be surely be a must-have for collectors.

The distinguishing characteristics of Pacifica’s approach to music-making encompass absolute technical precision, amazing balance, unusual sensitivity to the importance of the ensemble’s inner voices, and phrasing that, while sometimes a bit old fashioned (in terms of broadening the tempo ever so slightly at the tops of certain melodic lines), can leave listeners breathless. They seemed more spread out on the platform than some other groups, and that seemed to broaden the sound stage in a way that allowed each instrumental voice to emerge with exceptional clarity. The group’s aforementioned precision and scrupulous attention to balance – these folks really listen to each other – further enhanced the impression of transparency as they worked their way through the diverse moods and emotions of the Shostakovich. Part of the key, too, must be the ensemble’s often soft-spoken and restrained approach, evident in the first movement and also manifest in much of the last two parts, but the fact that they can play with great drama and fire was amply demonstrated in the aptly-named Andante furioso second movement, into which they tore with a vengeance that probably shook some members of the audience who didn’t expect such an outburst at that point.

Indeed, in the opening work, Beethoven’s Op. 18, No. 1, in F, there was considerable restraint, too, making it seem – to these ears – far more representative of the “classical” period than the “romantic” era the composer helped to inaugurate. This Quartet’s slow movement is one of its many delights – it’s a busy Adagio (marked “affetuoso et appassionato”) that contains many foretastes of things to come; the ensemble’s playing here was truly remarkable, as indeed it was throughout. In truth, however, it was the finale that proved most revelatory – it was so clear, so well-defined, that it seemed as if we were hearing it for the very first time. The audience seemed to sense this, too, and there were scattered cheers and bravoes at the end of this opening work.

The second half of the program was given over to a performance of Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet. McGill is one of the great artists of our time, and he’s still so young! He gets into the music in a physical way, albeit never excessively. And he gets into the music in a collegial way, too, fitting beautifully into the sound envelope of the Pacifica and playing as if he were a constant companion of these string virtuosi. (How he manages not to have to mess with his instrument all the time, like so many clarinetists – and other wind players – do, sets him further apart from his peers!)

The performance itself was an insightful and informed realization of exceptional beauty from start to finish. Thanks to the overall clarity, one was able to savor almost all the lines, almost all the time; folks think Brahms (like Schumann) can be thick and even a bit congested but there was none of that here as everything was so meticulously meshed. At the end, at nearly 10:15 p.m., there was a big uproar from the crowd that brought the artists back for another bow – but of course there’s not much an ensemble can do after playing the Brahms, which was more than enough. Bravo!