JACK and Xenakis pair perfectly at Town Hall

JACK Quartet

Few ensembles today command the interest of modern music aficionados like the JACK quartet. The members of the quartet — violinists Christopher Otto and Ari Streisfeld, violist John Pickford Richards, and cellist Kevin McFarland — met while studying at the Eastman school of music. They studied with the pioneering Kronos Quartet and Arditti Quartet. Though, JACK’s popularity these days more closely resembles the successful history of the Kronos Quartet, the artistic excellence of the Arditti Quartet came to mind when I heard JACK play this week at Town Hall as part of Joshua Roman’s Town Music series.

There is possibly no more persuasive proponent of Iannis Xenakis’s chamber music than the JACK Quartet. This and Xenakis’ popularity in some music circles has helped propel JACK’s success. The group released a well-received compilation of the composer’s music for string quartet. Tetras, an eighteen minute witty, abrasive romp is one of the first pieces the four musicians learned to play together. It continues to be a favorite of the ensemble.

Their performance of Tetras Wednesday exuded fire, confidence, and total dedication to Xenakis’s unique musical language. When McFarland’s D string popped, the quartet showed that modern music, amidst all the challenges it poses for listeners, requires virtuosity too. It was an impressive, even awing sight to watch McFarland adapt to playing Tetras’s rigorous passages with one less string. Bravo.

Xenakis’s music sounds so different from everything else out there; it is no wonder his work inspires fierce devotion from hipsters and younger audience members. In all of its craggy modernism, moments of impish humor, and use of reasonably standard instrumentation, Xenakis’s music seems to demand our thought and an explanation. Explaining Xenakis’s music is as easy as looking at a score. There we find Tetras, like other pieces by Xenakis, are musical realizations of math, probability, statistics and architecture.

Gyorgy Ligeti’s Second Quartet, a modern masterpiece and the second major piece on the program, received a particularly astute performance; Ligeti’s textures sang with clarity.

Wednesday’s concert was also a chance for the members of the quartet to play their own music. Following the composer/performer theme Roman started earlier in the session, Wednesday’s concert featured personal works by three of the members of the quartet. Each piece showcased different musical influences from Philip Glass’s sense of perpetual motion to Morton Feldman’s active stasis. They played each of their own pieces with the same enthusiasm and virtuosic skill the quartet brought to. This made a piece like Christopher Otto’s Algol — which hangs on subtle, shifting harmonies — bristle with excitement.

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