Judging by the applause, whistles and curtain calls at a sold-out Pickman Hall on Wednesday, Anthony McGill had a good night off from his regular job. The principal clarinet of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra was joined by the Pacifica Quartet for his first appearance in the Celebrity Series of Boston’s Debut Series in Mozart’s Quintet in A Major for Clarinet and Strings K. 581 (The Stadler). He appeared to enjoy making the music as much as the crowd enjoyed hearing it.
Written for Mozart’s close friend, the esteemed Vienna virtuoso Anton Stadler, the quintet combines Mozart’s gifts for elegant form, operatic lyricism and intelligent mischief. McGill’s personality and confidence made this beloved yet familiar work itself seem like a premier. He tied playful arpeggios around the cool opening Allegro. Contrasting liquid phrases in that first movement with a pure, sweet tone for the third, McGill also showed off Mozart’s rhythmic sensibilities, with a Menuetto to dance to and a snappy promenade in the fourth and final movement. Details such as the perfectly balanced, plaintive dynamics of the Larghetto and the propulsive octaves in the closing Allegretto con Variazioni were worth admiring for both technique and expressivity.
The Pacifica Quartet sounded relaxed and focused alongside McGill, with tutti passages enhanced by the clarinet glowing from inside the strings over a firm rhythm. The quartet’s issues with cohesion as well as intonation became clearer in Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp Minor op. 131. Acclaimed by Wagner, Schumann and many others (including the composer) this was one of the last quartets Beethoven composed, transcending conventions and exploring a wide formal and emotional soundscape over seven contiguous movements.
Unfortunately first violinist Simin Ganatra’s intonation problems went from a surprise in the clarinet quintet to a distraction in the Beethoven, almost immediately from the start of the pensive opening fugue. Despite their visible appreciation for the work, Pacifica’s overall interpretation felt dutiful, at times directionless. A top-heavy second movement offered few musical or emotional insights, and the sunny central movement was neither a climax nor a contrast. By the sixth movement the first violin demonstrated some welcome evenness of tone, and cellist Brandon Vamos was clearly the standout. The concluding Allegro may have been too brusque for some ears, but at least disrupted the overall sense of uniformity with its galloping pace and lovely imitations. Yet the coda quickly turned repetitive and made the finale seem like an afterthought
Cambridge composer Keeril Makan, recent winner of the Rome Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship, premiered his string quartet Return between the two other works. Commissioned by Pacifica, the composer introduced his “thirteen-minute progression of interconnected episodes” as a “disruption of expectation and return of new material.” Return teased and deconstructed smaller ideas, twisting them into jarring modernist angles with a few purely melodic episodes. The composer’s explanation notwithstanding, his work kept up a static anxiety that suited Pacifica’s sound, yet made the ensuing Beethoven seem all the more mundane, and the preceding Mozart even more astounding.