The Celebrity Series of Boston has long faced a chicken-and-egg dilemma when it came to introducing artists and ensembles that were new to its subscribership. Prior exposure to these artists seemed necessary in order to sell a respectable number of seats in Jordan Hall, and yet a Celebrity Series concert was the best way — sometimes the only way — to provide such exposure. And so there ensued many nights of recitals at Jordan, sometimes of the highest artistic caliber, attended by only the loyal few, sitting among dispiriting acres of empty seats.
Executive director Gary Dunning seems to have finally addressed this problem by creating a new Debut Series that takes place at the much smaller Pickman Hall, at the Longy School of Music of Bard College. (It also affords opportunities for Longy students to interact with the musicians.) As part of this new series, a talented young ensemble like the Pacifica Quartet, joined as it was on Wednesday night by the fine clarinetist Anthony McGill, can — and did — sell out this smaller space. It couldn’t have hurt matters that the Pacifica coincidentally has an earlier history of involvement performing and teaching at Longy.
In the repertoire department, the Celebrity Series in recent years has not exactly been known for its interest in new music, so I was also happy to see on Wednesday’s program the premiere of “Return,” a new quartet by Keeril Makan, a local composer based at MIT whose music deserves to be heard more widely. Makan himself was on hand to introduce the piece from the stage, describing it as akin to a diary of the emotionally tumultuous period he experienced in his own private life while this work was being composed.
The music of “Return” is highly concentrated, unfolding as an interlocking sequence of brief ensemble episodes through which the same simple musical ideas are given wildly divergent treatment. There are delicately drawn harmonics and crushed, violent chords. Even in just one hearing, a distilled quality of thought emerges from this score, and an intensely honed sense of solitude. The musicians at one point are directed to play their parts “aware of being alone.”
The Pacifica gave the new work a deeply committed and impressive first performance, one that showcased a wide yet precisely imagined range of tone colors. It was some of the finest playing of the night.
Mozart’s coolly sublime Clarinet Quintet, with McGill as guest artist, opened the concert in a poised and solid performance that seemed to still be in search of its own distinctiveness. Beethoven’s epic Quartet Op. 131, somewhat rough around the edges, closed a rewarding evening.