JACK Quartet blasts it out in Brooklyn

Mon Jan 30, 2017 at 11:52 am
JACK Quartet performed Sunday afternoon at xx in Brooklyn. Photo; Shervin Lainez

JACK Quartet performed Sunday afternoon at the Brooklyn Public LIbrary. Photo: Shervin Lainez

At the JACK Quartet’s free neighborhood concert in Brooklyn Sunday afternoon, you could have any kind of music you wanted, as long as it was hard-driving and modern. 

The concert, presented by a Carnegie Hall program to bring up-and-coming musical artists to New York’s five boroughs, drew an overflow crowd to the auditorium of the Brooklyn Public Library’s R. Stevan Dweck Center for Contemporary Culture to hear ear-challenging works by Ruth Crawford Seeger, Derek Bermel, Julia Wolfe, and Iannis Xenakis.

With just a few exceptions, the Brooklynites stuck it out for the full hour-and-a-quarter without intermission, and cheered the foursome’s expert and gutsy performances.

The ensemble is also introducing audiences to its new lineup. Last July, founding members, violinist Christopher Otto and violist John Pickford Richards, welcomed aboard two newcomers, violinist Austin Wulliman and cellist Jay Campbell. Judging from these performances, JACK’s advocacy of new music shines as brightly as ever.

Seeger’s String Quartet had a listener referring back to the program just to confirm its composition date. It seemed that music this fresh, feisty and daring could have been composed last week, not in 1931.

Behind the work’s generic title, traditional four-movement scheme and familiar Italian tempo markings stood a subversive imagination in search of new sounds. Contrasting themes—smooth and jittery, tender and passionate—are not unusual for a first movement, but playing them all simultaneously certainly was, in 1931 or anytime else.

The second movement, marked Leggiero (light) was a scampering, unpredictable scherzo, while the Andante began in close quarters and gray dissonance but eventually blossomed into a passionate statement. The last movement, Allegro possible, was all dark mutterings under angry, dissonant chords in the first violin.

Hearing this music so vividly rendered by the men of JACK, it’s hard not to think about what was “possible” for a woman composer in 1931, and wonder if this fierce music by Seeger, the wife and stepmother of more famous musical Seegers (Charles and Pete), was sending Shostakovich-like messages from behind the iron curtain of male privilege. 

Another oppressed group inspired the musical idiom of Derek Bermel’s Intonations, composed last year. The composer, who is white, was present at the concert and spoke briefly to the audience about the African-American traditions behind the piece’s three movements.

In performance, the music didn’t need much explaining. “Harmonica” did indeed start with those chugging, sliding chords one gets when blowing into and out of that instrument. Then it took off on a compositional flight featuring that in-out interval (a rocking major second) amid jazzy harmonies and expressive slides.

“Hymn/Homily” first played its churchy tune straight, then colored it with exotic quarter-tone harmonies. The preacher spoke in bluesy tones, with more slides for rhetorical emphasis.

Glissando reached a peak in the hip-hop-inspired “Hustle,” the cello laying down a groove while the other instruments swung from funny to angry to sarcastic in the speech inflections of rap. This movement perhaps leaned a little heavily on the novelty factor—a string quartet raps!—but it was deftly played, and good fun.

If the title of Julia Wolfe’s 1993 piece Early that summer suggested easygoing beach music, one was in for a surprise. Bursts of rapid bowing on crunched-up dissonant chords were the raw material of this bracingly aggressive piece, and when the composer got the minimalist wind in her sails toward the end the players’ bow arms were a blur for page after page.

Happily, those arms survived Wolfe’s piece to play the last work on the program, a 1963 composition by Xenakis with the catchy title ST/4—1,080262. Again, expectations were one thing, the reality something else. Instead of a bloodless exercise by the Greek engineer-mathematician-turned-composer, one heard an atonal piece with the peculiar charm of abstract artists such as Klee or Kandinsky, a slowly gathering vortex of leaps and slides and tremolos, with a slower pizzicato section in the middle and a clear (and welcome) recapitulation of the first part.

Of course, the X factor in the Xenakis performance, and all the others, was the commitment and vitality of the JACK Quartet’s playing. They came to the boroughs with a sample case full of downtown music, and judging from the audience’s response, they made the sale.

The next Carnegie Hall Neighborhood Concert of classical music will be tenor Christopher Yoon and pianist Binna Han, 5 p.m. Feb. 11 at St. Michael’s Church, Manhattan. Free; no reservations necessary.saintmichaelschurch.org; 212-222-2700.

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