In the spring of 2011, the JACK Quartet arrived in Seattle for the first time, treating the city to two very different performances. For the first, an intimate, sold-out event at the Sorrento Hotel’s Top of the Town ballroom, the quartet performed Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas’ improvisational String Quartet No. 3 in complete darkness. The next day, on the stage at Town Hall, the four New York-based musicians brought the crowd to its feet with blistering renditions of works by Ligeti, Xenakis, and other modern composers, all performed passionately with hair-raising technical precision.
Last week, Seattle audiences returned for JACK Quartet’s second visit to Town Hall. A sizable crowd filled the Great Hall’s pews for the Tuesday evening performance, the final concert in Town Hall’s 2012-13 TownMusic series. In keeping with the TownMusic tradition of commissioning works from emerging composers, the program featured a new piece by composer Jefferson Friedman, who traveled from his home in Los Angeles for the premiere of his Quintet, written for two violins, viola, and two cellos. Acclaimed cellist and TownMusic artistic director Joshua Roman joined the members of JACK Quartet onstage for the performance.
Full of emotional intensity, Friedman’s Quintet tackles the subject of grief head on. Written both “about the grieving process, and at the same time (as) part of it,” the work maintains a strong focus on expressing emotion while subtly traversing melodic, rhythmic, and timbral ideas. The addition of an extra cello to the traditional string quartet instrumentation beefed up the bass range considerably, bringing a sense of weight to the music and contributing additional momentum and energy that propelled the piece along.
The work zips between moods with transitions as sudden as a summer rainstorm. At the start of the piece, a singing viola solo is framed by humming — both high-pitched and low — from the other strings, as well as warm cello harmonies. Later, sharp stabbing bow strokes create angry lightning bolts of sound while fervent melodies are passed around the ensemble. An experienced chamber musician, Roman blended effortlessly with the quartet, especially in duet sections with JACK’s cellist, Kevin McFarland.
Polish composer Witold Lutosławski’s dazzlingly difficult String Quartet dominated the second half of the program. Born in 1913, Lutosławski was a major proponent of 20th century aleatoric composition techniques, which utilize chance and randomness to determine melodic, rhythmic, and timbral elements. Unlike traditional classical compositions, the String Quartet doesn’t specify how the four musicians’ parts fit together. Instead, the work is broken up into “mobiles.” Transitions between mobiles are made as an ensemble, but within each mobile the musicians are free to interpret how the parts should intersect.
For JACK Quartet, Lutosławski’s work provided an opportunity to showcase the well-oiled machine that is their ensemble dynamics. Every nuance in timbre and timing was perfectly coordinated between each of the four musicians — no small feat given the large number of musical ideas that the piece tosses around. At the cliff-hanging climax, the performers traded vehement bow strokes, building up tension like a glass about to overflow. Teetering on the brink, the musicians began to back down one by one, in a painstakingly gradual release. A single, resigned note from cellist McFarland finally pulled the plug, releasing the web of tension and causing a near-audible sigh of relief to sweep across the room.
The concert began with two works representing rhythmic complexity from opposite ends of the musical timeline — one from 1400, and the other from 2008. Composed at the turn of the 15th century, Rodericus’ Angelorum Psalat contains some of the most complex examples of rhythm and vocal harmony of its time. JACK Quartet violinist Christopher Otto’s arrangement of the work for string quartet sounded surprisingly fresh and modern. After a meditative introduction by first violin and viola, pizzicato harmonies in the second violin and cello added an element of buoyancy, accentuating the piece’s lilting rhythms.
In contrast, Brian Ferneyhough’s Exordium exemplifies 21st century rhythmic exploration. Written in 2008 to commemorate composer Elliott Carter’s 100th birthday, the nine-minute piece is comprised of 43 tiny movements full of scratches, screeches, and glissandos, many performed in unison. The piece poses a bevy of challenges, particularly of the technical variety. Ever heard a string quartet squeak in unison, while staying perfectly in tune and varying dynamics at exactly the same rate? JACK Quartet delivered on this promise.
In his introductory speech, Roman revealed concert details for the 2013-14 TownMusic season, including an appearance by composer Caroline Shaw, winner of the 2013 Pulizer Prize for Music. She’ll be performing with the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth. Other highlights include performances of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale, Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, and three new TownMusic commissions. Stay tuned for the full season announcement from Town Hall.
Originally posted on The SunBreak on June 19, 2013.