Pacifica Quartet preview: cycling Beethoven

Renowned chamber ensemble's five-concert series offers a rare opportunity to take a deep dive into some of the greatest music ever written

“I’m sorry, I’m getting choked up now,” says Pacifica Quartet violist Mark Holloway. He’s not talking about a recent family tragedy. He’s talking about a long dead composer: Beethoven. And not about his famous symphonies (“da-da-da da!”), but a more intimate side. Over the next week, Holloway and his colleagues will perform all 16 of Beethoven’s string quartets in five concerts at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall.

“I feel so humbled by this music,” Holloway continued after composing himself. Even after playing those chamber music standards for decades, “we all have a deep love for it. Today we were rehearsing Op. 135 and the second violin had one of those magical moments only Beethoven can conjure up and I could see the astonishment on his face.”

Pacifica Quartet plays Beethoven this week. Photo: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

Holloway and his fellow quartet members aren’t the only listeners who continue to be moved. Composed between 1800, when Beethoven was 30, and 1826, the year before he died, the quartets offer astonishing variety, considering they were all written by one composer for the same four stringed instruments. The first six mostly build on the Classical-era forms established by his teacher Haydn and Mozart. The ever-popular middle period quartets document Beethoven’s evolution from Classical elegance to Romantic passion. His final quartets look beyond Romanticism to a more modern, sometimes uncategorizable sound, and still sound thrillingly futuristic even in the 21st century.

With Beethoven’s 250th birth anniversary approaching, Friends of Chamber Music, which is presenting the Pacifica Beethoven cycle, knew that many listeners would want to get to know — or reacquaint themselves with — Beethoven’s music, explains executive director Pat Zagelow. Experiencing the complete cycle (or even a few portions) live provides an unparalleled opportunity to sample or dive deep into what’s universally considered to be some of the greatest music ever written — undistracted by device notifications and news. FOCM also offers an impressive series of free talks, expert lectures, discussions, master classes and open rehearsals to contextualize and enhance the exploration.

And Pacifica Quartet makes an ideal guide. In previous Oregon appearances, the Grammy-winning foursome have demonstrated not just the highest levels of technical chops but also a rare ability to connect emotionally to audiences without resorting to fake flamboyance. Read Alice Hardesty’s ArtsWatch interview for more on the group and its two-decade history.

“They rehearse all the time and work so hard to have such a high level of artistic integrity and cohesiveness,” Zagelow says. “Even audience members who are not as sophisticated musically love them and don’t know why. I love to watch them — it’s so engaging to see them immersed in this. The music is living through their bodies as they play.”

Whenever an established small ensemble adds new members like Holloway, who joined last year, it refreshes their interpretation. “We bring a lot to each other: a questioning eye, a new found examination of the music,” he says. “It’s invigorating to have a fresh attitude.”

Pacifica violist Mark Holloway. Photo: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

Even for veteran ensembles, the music’s ambition continually pushes them to new heights. Holloway gushes about the quartets’ variety, the “chameleon-like quality,” the sense of triumph great players can achieve when surmounting some of their technical challenges. Although Beethoven’s mighty symphonies boast “so many voices and colors,” he explains, “in his string quartets, it’s all distilled into only four voices that can be as as expressive and creative and searching” as his other music.

Holloway’s emotional reaction in just discussing, let alone playing, the quartets shows why they’re worth getting choked up about. “This music endures for a reason,” he says of the cycle. “It’s not a relic of the past — it’s an incredibly vibrant living thing. We have the entire range of human emotion on display from someone who experienced it all, from deep tragedy to all the triumphs of the human spirit. It’s a display of what mankind is capable of —a reminder of what art can achieve. We need this compassion and humanity maybe now more than ever.”

Friends of Chamber Music presents the Pacifica Quartet in Festival Beethoven, October 27-November 4. Lincoln Performance Hall, Portland State University, 1620 SW Park Ave. Tickets $30 – $55, $5 student rush and $5 Arts for All tickets (subject to availability). 503.224.9842 or A shorter version of this story appears in The Oregonian/OregonLive.

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