Composer Ezra Sims' new string quartet will get its first public hearing Wednesday evening at the Leo Rich Theater, during an Arizona Friends of Chamber Music concert. The Pacifica Quartet, which this year and next is the resident quartet of the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society in New York, plays the Sims work, along with two familiar pieces. Haydn's Quartet Op. 64, No. 5, "The Lark," is on the program, along with Dvorák's Quartet in D minor, Op. 34.
Sims is a Cambridge, Mass.-based composer who's best known for "microtonal" music--which means he deploys the tones that are in between the usual whole and half notes routinely used in Western music. Call them quarter-steps. The distinctive sound has won him all manner of honors, from a Guggenheim to a Fulbright, and assorted commissions, including one from the Koussevitzky Foundation. With time out for a couple of years devoted to making music for dance, Sims has been composing his microtonal music since 1960. It's been played all over the world.
The busy Pacifica is also faculty quartet in residence at the University of Illinois Champaign/Urbana and quartet in residence at the University of Chicago. The musicians come to Tucson after a recent New York triumph--a performance of works by Schoenberg, the Austrian composer who, it turns out, was also a painter. The Jewish Museum is exhibiting his works right now, and invited the Pacifica to perform his music, far better known than his painted works, in the room where his paintings are hung.
The players routinely get raves; The New York Times last December cited their concert of Elliott Carter's contemporary string quartets as one of the best "10 moments" of the year. The critic praised the musicians' "exciting assurance," reveling in both their technical ability and their passion.
The new Sims piece is the first in a surprising parade of five new works commissioned for this season by the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music. That's an extraordinary number for any arts presenter, but it's downright astonishing for a group so far removed from the major cultural centers. But the Friends, while they sponsor performances of beloved works from the classical repertoire, have always taken on the responsibility for sponsoring new work. Paid for by an assortment of local donors, the second of this season's commissioned works will premiere in February, and the final three will debut at the annual chamber music festival in the spring.