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JACK Quartet @ NGA

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I. Xenakis, Complete String Quartets, JACK Quartet
We will take every chance we can get to hear the JACK Quartet play, and we have had plenty of chances this season. The group, which specializes in new music, took part in the Ives festival hosted by the Post-Classical Ensemble last November, and performed at the Library of Congress the year before that. We even had to miss a lunchtime concert they gave at the National Gallery of Art just this past April, which we recommended but could not attend. Happily, the group was back at the National Gallery of Art on Sunday evening, in the auditorium of the museum's East Building, for another concert of contemporary music. It was sparsely attended, especially after some members of the audience heard the first one or two pieces, but a few masochistic stalwarts stuck it out to the end. A composer could not ask for more committed interpreters of his or her music: a performance by the JACK Quartet is likely to put any music these musicians believe in in the best light. Sadly, that is still not always enough.

Bookending the concert were two composers whom this eclectic foursome has championed most steadfastly. Georg Friedrich Haas's fifth string quartet, which opened the program, is not the one performed in complete darkness -- that is the disorienting no. 3, "In iij. Noct." -- but it plays with the same issues of space and time. The four players were positioned at the auditorium's four corners, surrounding the audience, making little snatches of sound swirl around our heads. These musical ideas -- glissandi, tremolos, dissonant clusters, consonant harmonies, microtones, overtones making the harmonic series buzz, sometimes moaning like human voices, sometimes whining like electronic feedback -- bounced antiphonally from player to player, in a little, semi-contrapuntal stretto of close imitation, beats of dissonance setting the air aflutter. The JACK Quartet has not yet recorded any of Haas's quartets, but I am not sure that the real effect of this music can be captured on sound equipment.

The Haas was paired quite nicely with much older music, three vocal pieces by 14th-century Guillaume de Machaut in a transcription by JACK violinist Ari Streisfeld, music that had its own fierce rhythmic complexity, in hocket-like interactions between the voices, and modal harmonies that can be hair-raising to tonally oriented ears. The JACK Quartet has recorded the quartets of Iannis Xenakis, heard at the end of the concert, and to magnificent effect. They gave everything they had to Tetras, a jolt of energy that brought me back to equilibrium after the middle part of this concert. It is a piece that exults in chaos -- or seems to, since most of the composer's music is rigorously controlled -- but it is enlivened by rhythmic vigor verve and shape. "Buckle up," was the pithy comment offered by cellist Kevin McFarland, and it was good advice.

In the middle were three pieces that can be enjoyed and appreciated fully just by hearing what they are about -- indeed it is probably better that way than actually hearing them. Roger Reynolds spoke about not forgotten, from 2010, as being inspired by the experience of hearing the Arditti Quartet play a new piece by Elliott Carter on two different occasions, first at the premiere and second a year later: the difference between the two performances made clear to him that "discovery was being replaced by mastery," that something about performers encountering the music new changed the nature of the performance. Reynolds based the inner four movements of his work on four excerpts from other composers -- when those little snippets surfaced, it was generally the most pleasing part -- leaving it to the performers to choose the order of the movements.

The other two pieces came from a composition seminar Reynolds led this spring, in which five students completed a work for string quartet that the JACK Quartet would perform and record. In Probabilities, Diarmid Flatley took 36 excerpts from earlier string quartets, one for roughly each decade of the genre's existence, and combined them using a mathematical probability structure. Jacob Sundstrom, for no comment from the Grey Room, used a similarly computer-oriented approach, taking a William S. Burroughs poem, breaking it into fragments, assigning musical ideas to each fragment, and recombining it. Some aspects of the words remained in the piece, in the form of consonants and vowels interjected by the musicians during the performance. If this sounds more like a process of assemblage than composition, you will not be surprised that it sounded that way, too. Even computers that have been taught to compose music have learned to introduce randomness, some digital approximation of inspiration, to be able to mimic human composers.

Next Sunday the free concert series at the National Gallery of Art returns to West Building's West Garden Court for a recital by soprano Rosa Lamoreaux and baritone William Sharp (June 10, 6:30 pm), in music by Barber, Musto, and other composers.

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