JACK Quartet fascinates with ectoplasmic Lachenmann

Mon Aug 14, 2023 at 12:47 pm
JACK Quartet performed music of Helmut Lachenmann at the TIME:SPANS festival Sunday at the DiMenna Center. Photo: Shervin Lainez

At your first violin lesson, the teacher showed you how much bow pressure to use so you didn’t make grinding or whistling sounds. And of course, the bow had to remain exactly perpendicular to the string at all times.
Violin teacher, meet Helmut Lachenmann.
In concert Sunday as part of the TIME:SPANS festival of contemporary music at the DiMenna Center, the JACK Quartet used all those forbidden sounds and moves to weave subtle, otherworldly imagery in works by the Stuttgart-born master of musique concrète.
That 20th-century genre has generally involved creating sound collages electronically, using not just musical tones but speech and environmental sounds. Lachenmann, now 87, has made a specialty of pursuing this aesthetic using only traditional instruments, as in his three string quartets, composed in 1972, 1989 and 2001, respectively.
Sunday’s concise program, lasting about one hour without intermission, offered Quartets No. 2, Reigen seliger Geister, and No. 3, Grido, each in one movement. The performance order in the printed program was reversed, so that the concert closed with the better-known and somewhat more picturesque No. 2.
The title of No. 3 means a shout or a cry in Italian, and in a program note the composer lamented how modern sensibilities are “dulled” by “a civilization which has been flooded and saturated by music (auditory consumerist magic).” His response in this piece, however, was not so much a cry of protest as an invitation to lean forward in one’s seat and seek out the micro-gestures and exotic sounds amid dynamics that ranged mostly from pianissimo to silence.
Bows lingered by the instrument’s bridge or slid obliquely up a string, producing whispers like wind in pine trees, or a gentle scratch, or a mechanical buzz. In this environment, a mezzo forte interjection by the cello sounded like a thunderclap, and a brief flurry of activity seemed to set the instruments tossing on a choppy sea before the rarefied atmosphere returned.
Before dwindling to niente at the close, the quartet tantalized with softly whistling, ultra-high notes and a microtonal not-quite-unison that pulsated with acoustic “beats.”
This piece and the one that followed demanded the utmost in concentration and engagement from performers and audience alike, and got it on Sunday.
The title of Quartet No. 2 translates as “dance of the blessed spirits,” recalling the serene interlude of that name in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. But Geister also means ghosts, and with its tiny, rocketing glissandos and sudden silences, this piece evoked not a stately dance but an ectoplasmic scene of fleeting apparitions. Bowing the instruments at their scroll ends produced unearthly whispers, punctuated by extremely high, pricking pizzicato notes.
Pizzicato sparkled even brighter in the closing pages, as the players exchanged their bows for plectra to produce strums and hard-edged plucks. They impressively met the technical challenge of silently counting the long rests, then entering with a plucked chord exactly together.
The work’s sonic palette resembled that of No. 3, plus softly hissing downbows and what the composer called the “perforated” tones of bows grinding hard into strings. The little glissando rockets shot through it all, right to the piece’s vaporous close.
Although the dynamic all evening was mostly piano and pianissimo, the applause at the end wasn’t, as the JACK players—violinists Christopher Otto and Austin Wulliman, violist John Pickford Richards, and cellist Jay Campbell—were called back repeatedly in recognition of an intense and fascinating musical experience.
TIME:SPANS continues with JACK Quartet performing works by Seare Farhat, Clara Iannetta, and Cenk Ergün, 7:30 p.m. tonight at the DiMenna Center. timespans.org.

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