Erin Gee: Mouthpiece XXII
Philip Glass: String Quartet No. 8
Mark Applebaum: Darmstadt Kindergarten
Amy Williams: Richter Textures
One of New York City’s premier string quartets not only for their impeccable technique, but also for their irrepressible spirit of adventure, last Sunday afternoon the JACK Quartet virtuosically blessed us with a one-hour free performance of relatively new contemporary chamber music in Inwood’s Our Saviour’s Atonement Lutheran Church as part of Carnegie Hall’s Neighborhood Concerts series. Granted, you had to earn it, because not only was the location not particular convenient to begin with, but the one train that would have made the trip a straight shot for me was not going all the way on that day.
But never mind.
Location and transportation challenges obviously had fazed neither the quartet’s fiercely dedicated audience, Neighborhood Concerts regulars and curious locals, including my colleague Fabri, who showed up with his wife and their roommates, and the little church quickly became so packed that standing room was soon becoming a problem. A good problem to have, for sure, and one that the JACK Quartet is likely to encounter more and more often as their career and reputation are unmistakably on a well-deserved upward path.
As if to establish their fearless experimenter credentials from the get-go, the four musicians started the concert with Erin Gee’s Mouthpiece XXII, a short piece during which they not only played their respective instruments, but also used their vocal chords to produce various sounds such as whistling and whispering. This wide-ranging sonic exploration gradually created a stream of consciousness-type phenomenon that was as eerie as intriguing and imperceptibly captured the audience’s attention with unique and exciting textures.
Nowadays musical pioneer Philip Glass almost seems too conventional for the JACK Quartet, but hearing them brilliantly work their way through his String Quartet No. 8 three months ago at Carnegie Hall was too thrilling of an experience to worry about over-thinking it, and I most grateful for a repeat performance of it. Having injected the traditional structure and spirit of the string quartet with playfully irreverent notes, Glass managed to please everyone without a fuss while still boldly breaking new ground. One of those timeless masterpieces that never get old, Glass’ String Quartet No. 8 can easily engage unsuspecting audiences into the realm of contemporary music, and keep them there too. Unsurprisingly, Sunday’s crowd was pretty ecstatic and made it loudly clear.
Commissioned by the Kronos Quartet – Talk about fearless experimenters! – for one of their children’s concerts and inspired by the famous Darmstadt Summer Courses, where the latest modern music trends of the 1950s and 1960s used to be fervently discussed, Mark Applebaum’s Darmstadt Kindergarten combines the rigor and the fun of music by combining instrumental sounds and choreographic gestures. Accordingly, one by one the four musicians eventually gave up their instruments to get up and mimic the notes they were supposed to play until they were all mimicking their part in total silence. And if the whole thing ended up feeling a bit gimmicky, it was still an undisputed hit.
Back to more conventional playing, the concert concluded with JACK Quartet-commissioned Amy Williams’ Richter Textures, whose seven short and uninterrupted movements were inspired by seven landscape and abstract paintings created by endlessly versatile German visual artist Gerhard Richter. As the widely different snapshots were coming up in the promised richer textures, from eerily delicate to vibrantly colorful to doggedly gritty, each of them took pain to build its own little world for a couple of minutes before making way for the next one.