JACK Quartet, Sō Percussion serve up premieres by Glass, Dennehy and Trueman

Wed Mar 07, 2018 at 12:54 pm
The JACK Quartet performed the final program in its Soundscape America series Saturday night at Miller Theatre.

JACK Quartet performed the U.S. premiere of Philip Glass’s String Quartet No 8 Tuesday night at Zankel Hall.

Something like adding the chocolate to the peanut butter, two great musical tastes came together Tuesday night at Zankel Hall—JACK Quartet and Sō Percussion. Adding in a third flavor, JACK gave the American premiere of Philip Glass’s String Quartet No. 8. Not to be outdone, Sō played the world premiere of Broken Unison, by Donnacha Dennehy. The  two groups finished as an octet for the New York premiere of Dan Trueman’s Songs That Are Hard To Sing.

Glass, who is composer in residence this season at Carnegie, still produces surprises; his most recent pieces often have more new things in them than his great body of work from the late ‘60s through his First Symphony.

String Quartet No. 8 (co-commissioned by Carnegie) is in the common minimalist form of three movements, fast-slow-fast, and comes in at around 15 minutes. That the performance sounded quicker and more pithy than that was one sign of how good the music was—it drew out the kind of listening that loses track of both time and active thought, subsumed to the imperatives of the ear. Like his most recent symphony (No. 11), it’s full of vitality and almost jaunty.

Where Glass’s familiar style uses extended repetitions of material, String Quartet No. 8 repeats each idea just a couple of times before moving on to the next. And there were so many ideas–all of them capturing some tiny figure or feeling from the Baroque and Classical eras, flowing through Glass’s excellent voice leading. Rather than feel jumbled or chaotic, each was transparent and logical, and with them Glass built an elegant and satisfying form.

One was also struck by the sheer charm and warmth of the music, it’s amiable wisdom. The slow second movement made lyrical lines out of a minimum of material, sure sign of a master craftsman. JACK’s performance was as warm as the music, and almost perfect—violinist Christopher Otto missed a note in the second movement, which had the other violinist, Austin Wulliman, grinning. It was that kind of piece.

Sō Percussion

Sō Percussion

Hearing Dennehy’s post-minimalism after Glass was illuminating, and also tough for Dennehy. Broken Unison showed a great ear for orchestration, with the Sō Percussion quartet playing marimbas, xylophones, and vibraphones, with Kenny Clarke-like fortissimo bass drum hits.

The music was full of canons, some closely spaced, others more leisurely coordinated. The shimmering metallic instruments and the rounded tones of the marimbas made a luscious sound, and the energetic, diatonic music was pleasurable from moment to moment.

But overall the piece left only a minor impression. Despite all the colors and the easy exactitude of the playing, the piece suffered from a common issue with post-minimalism– form that undercuts the structure. Canons have direction, they go somewhere and accumulate structure behind them. But Broken Unison as a whole ran in place, and the contradiction between those two was dissatisfying.

After intermission, Trueman’s Songs That Are Hard To Sing was also flawed, but most of it worked and worked so well that the flaws were bothersome without being crippling.

The title and idea came, according to Trueman, from finding the songs he loves hard to sing. So he made a set of five songs, surely hard to sing and possibly hard to play, though the performance by the combined ensembles was assured and expressive.

What the music suffered from was simplicity and sentimentality, which marked the beginning and the end of the work. “Sinking Song” started with a holiday-like tune that Trueman then demolished with microtonality and down-sliding glissandos. The middle section burst into rock, but that genre is well-trod and increasingly facile ground over the last decade. The biggest problem in these sections was that Trueman wasn’t building but destroying.

But the middle songs, “Sister Song,” “Summoning Song,” and “Seizing Song,” were excellent. Trueman built in the positive sense, the music made something out of time and was intelligent and beautiful. These middle pieces were deeply impressive, especially the delicate “Summoning Song,” and one felt that this was going to be a deep experience.

The final “Sad Song” was lovely. The music came to a pause, and percussionist Josh Quillen began playing the steel pan drum…and singing. Not well, but that could’ve been a touching gesture that added to the mood. But the lyrics, “Sad songs are hard to sing,” etc, were trite and unworthy of the fine music that had come before.

The Pacific Symphony plays the New York premiere of Glass’s The Passion of Ramakrishna and other works 8 p.m. April 21 Carnegie Hall. carnegiehall.org

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