Music review: The JACK Quartet at Chamber Music in Historic Sites and Monday Evening Concerts
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The members of an extraordinary string quartet are so in sync that it sometimes feels as if they could play well together even in the dark -- which is exactly what the JACK Quartet did last April, performing a 68-minute Georg Friedrich Haas piece for Monday Evening Concerts.
On Sunday and Monday, the young New York-based quartet returned to Los Angeles for two very different, well-attended and astonishing concerts. The first was the group’s debut for the Da Camera Society’s Chamber Music in Historic Sites series, at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), the other, a return engagement for Monday Evening Concerts at the Colburn School’s Zipper Hall that included three premieres.
In case you were wondering, the first initials of the quartet members -– Ari Streisfeld and Christopher Otto, alternating first violins; Kevin McFarland, cello, and John Pickford Richards, viola –- spell JACK.
The SCI-Arc concert began with three forward-looking vocal pieces by the late medieval composer Guillaume de Machaut, imaginatively arranged for string quartet by Streisfeld. Here the JACK’s vibrato-less sonority, balance and intonation were as natural as breathing. And in Philip Glass’ lovely String Quartet No. 5, the ensemble caught the intense ebb and flow of its deeply romantic poetry and drama.
After intermission, Streisfeld offered the West Coast premiere of his three arrangements from Carlo Gesualdo’s Sixth Book of Madrigals. The quartet poignantly negotiated the notorious (he murdered his wife and her lover) Renaissance composer’s dissonant, unstable harmonies. But the knockout performance Sunday was Iannis Xenakis’ “Tetras,” which the JACK has performed almost 50 times -- more than any other work in its repertory. And it showed in the quartet’s turbulent and raw account, performed with uncanny dynamic control. Afterward, people went to the stage to peek at the scores, as if asking, “How could such a variety of sound come from mere marks on a page?”
The same question was no doubt pondered after the JACK’s riveting concert on Monday, in which the 34-year-old American-born, British-based composer Aaron Cassidy’s First and Second String Quartets were given their West Coast and American premieres, respectively. The program concluded on soaring high notes with the U.S. premiere of Romanian-born Horatiu Radulescu’s “before the universe was born,” his fifth string quartet.
The lightly abrasive Cassidy quartets were never ugly sounding. His well-crafted music uses advanced techniques in sound production, including artful scraping of the strings. Between the Cassidy quartets, Webern’s tiny and compact Six Bagatelles, expertly performed, sounded like “old” music.
But it’s all about context. After the Radulescu, one concertgoer remarked: “It made Xenakis sound like Haydn.” The score lasts half an hour and feels like a universe struggling to be born. At one point, Otto used his bow to play under his violin’s strings.
The concert began quietly with John Cage’s String Quartet in Four Parts, demanding a completely different kind of virtuosity -- precise and fragile.
-- Rick Schultz