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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

SCRUTINY | JACK Quartet Clear The Air

By Adam Scime on January 16, 2016

JACK Quartet
JACK Quartet (Photo: Henrik Olund)

JACK Quartet: St. Lawrence Centre for the Performing Arts, Jane Mallett Theatre on Thursday, January 14, 2016.

The JACK Quartet has rightly become a towering vehicle for the performance and championing of contemporary music. With an impressive seventeen commercial recordings, numerous awards of international recognition, and commissions from the world’s leading composers, the JACK Quartet has successfully won over contemporary music lovers with a commanding performance bravura and dazzling musicianship.

Making their latest appearance at the Jane Mallet Theatre in Toronto, the quartet presented an eclectic selection of works, each containing a certain amount of sonic enchantment. The programming choices allowed the audience to experience not only the quartet’s wide-ranging stylistic preferences, but also a brilliant display of virtuosity and commitment.

The first piece on the program, The Wind in High Places, was written by American composer John Luther Adams, an environmentalist-composer known for drawing inspiration from the landscapes of his native Alaska. Throughout this piece, we certainly receive a profound sense of sonic geography elicited by shimmering and delicate harmonics, a technique produced by lightly pressing the string at various vibration nodes. This piece is a sustained listening experience and a journey through the subtle resonances of a stark northern landscape. The music is ethereal, beautiful and stagnant, much like the light of the sun burning upon the frozen northern topography. It is a masterful rendering of non-developmental tonal painting. Often, this diaphanous material becomes excited as if set ablaze; powerful winds violently tossing snow and ice under the radiant sunshine.

The exquisite execution of the players leads one to believe that this music has not only been created for the performers on the stage but perhaps something deeper: one feels as though this music has somehow been fashioned for the actual instruments producing the luminous sounds. I have to commend Adams for a most impressive display of his knowledge for idiomatic string writing. It is often the case that when composers are this familiar with the instrumentation, there is a tendency to overwrite, an attribute that is charmingly absent from this music. My one reservation is that this music is perhaps too relaxing, or too beautiful. This undoubtedly is a subjective notion, however; one can’t help but feel overwhelmingly pleased and reassured when listening to this music. The material surrounds and bathes the listener in a pleasant wash of a seemingly endless dreamscape. Although I enjoyed the piece, I couldn’t help wanting to escape this relentless sound world at times.

Next, the quartet performed New York composer John Zorn’s sixth string quartet, The Remedy of Fortune. In the first three minutes of the piece, we hear reminiscences of Bartok, Debussy, Schoenberg, and – as the composer writes in his note – Machaut. There is an immediate nostalgia present in this music. Evoking composers of the past through a nostalgic pastiche is of course nothing new. In the music of Mahler, nostalgic materials represent a simultaneous acknowledgment of and rebellion against the irreversibility of time. Mahler’s masterful command of ‘classical’ materials seems to depict a tragic attempt to recapture an idealized past.

Unfortunately in Zorn’s piece, the stylistic juxtapositions seem hurried and clumsy. Despite some impressive gestural writing for the quartet, the disparate elements fail to coalesce, and we are left without a clear idea of what this material communicates. Perhaps the unfocused treatment of styles provides a surreal wandering through Zorn’s influences. There is no shortage of difficult writing in this piece. If one may observe strictly the performance objective of this music, it is an excellent example of the JACK quartet’s staggering commitment to the music they perform, and the palpable confidence on display with each note.

After a brief intermission, the quartet performed a brief arrangement of the music of 14th-century French composer Rodericus. An eloquent rendering by one of the quartet’s members, violinist Christopher Otto, this music acts more or less as a palette cleanser for the ear. At first glance, this programming choice may seem peculiar, but, in my opinion, fits perfectly into a very carefully thought out night of music during which all the music is connected to the Renaissance era, a common thread I will mention later.

The last piece of the evening was the famous second string quartet of Iannis Xenakis, Tetras. This piece is extremely challenging for the performers. The JACK Quartet controlled the quirky glissandi, explosive gestures, and exuberant climaxes with exemplary precision. The world-class musicianship of the quartet is able to bloom in complete super nova throughout this piece. The players leave everything they have on the stage, and the audience is rewarded with a magnificent performance of a masterpiece that is too little performed.

Xenakis demands that there be clarity of gesture through moments of extreme chaos. Much like a swarm of bees simultaneously coming to rest in an instant, the quartet was able to bring clarity and focus to tumult and pandemonium.

As the music unfolded throughout the evening, it became apparent that there exists a reference to Renaissance art in each work. In Adams’ work, the drone-based persistence laying beneath colorful harmonic counterpoint is (to my ears) in direct reference to Renaissance polyphonic tendencies. In the music of Zorn, the reference to Machaut is obvious through the referential nostalgia in the music, and the actual title of the piece, borrowed from a 14th-century poem by Machaut. The arrangement of Rodericus speaks for itself.

As for the music of Xenakis, it is a reference to architecture that continues the common thread. Xenakis, a composer who began his career studying with the famous and influential architect Corbusier, is known for brilliant architectural concepts in his music. Renaissance architecture is reliant upon symmetry, proportion, and the regularity of design. Tetras certainly is a piece that utilizes these features as accomplished through the manipulation of complex musical materials. The music is infused with a sense of depth that is achieved through an array of sounds in shifting rhythmic strata. There exists a hierarchy of proportions, each layer of which posses a greater or lesser frontal thrust. This is masterful and powerful music indeed.

There was another theme to the evening: clarity. Not only was the audience treated to a breathtaking display of musical clarity through performance, but it also became utterly clear as to why the JACK Quartet has gained their deserving reputation. With a great amount of enthusiasm, I would urge anyone to experience the emotive power and remarkable musicianship the quartet offers to a live audience.

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Adam Scime

Adam Scime is a Toronto-based composer and performer. His music has been praised as “a fantastic success" (CBC) and "Astounding, the musical result was remarkable" (icareifyoulisten.com). His work has received many awards including the 2015 CMC Toronto Emerging Composer Award, The Socan Young Composer Competition, The Karen Keiser Prize in Canadian Music, and The Esprit Orchestra Young Composer Competition.

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