JACK Quartet succeeds in an edgy experiment

Concert review
February 27, 2012 11:29 am

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Midway through the past century, you'd often hear music written by living composers called "experimental." Eventually the contentiousness of the period drove the word out of the lexicon. It was perhaps just as well, as it suggested that a contemporary composer was incapable of writing art that was complete.

But even today as we use far blander nomenclature -- contemporary music, new music, art music -- it's worth remembering that the spirit of experimentation still plays a significant role for both composers and audience. A concert Saturday night at The Andy Warhol Museum brought that to the fore.

The ensemble was one that seems to subsist entirely on the new: JACK Quartet. The 30-something members -- violinists Ari Streisfeld and Christopher Otto, cellist Kevin McFarland and violist John Pickford Richards -- met at the Eastman School of Music and took their first initials for their name. They have thrown their considerable chops to the unpredictable winds of new music in an impressive and virtuosic manner.

Co-presented by the museum and Pitt's Music on the Edge series, JACK Quartet premiered a work by Pitt composer Amy Williams, "Richter Textures," and performed Philip Glass' String Quartet No. 5, Michael Gordon's "Potassium" and Jason Eckardt's "Subject."

Ms. Williams drew upon seven paintings by Gerhard Richter for the brief movements of her work, but I was just as happy not to know which ones. I still remember the disappointment when I first gazed upon Viktor Hartmann's goofy drawing that inspired Modest Mussorgsky to write "Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks." I'd rather focus fully on the music.

Ms. Williams' work was austere, marked by sparse timbre and clipped notes. Each section was pulled taut despite the different techniques: tone clusters hung slowly in one, raspy tones from bows on fingerboards in another, echo pings in yet another. They related to each other with theme-and-variations integrity, a line JACK Quartet pulled compellingly.

Michael Gordon's "Potassium" called for pickups on their instruments that ran sound through a fuzz box. This wasn't a gimmicky end, but a fertile beginning as he built a mesmerizing swirl of sound using raw glissandos and harmonics. At one point a conjunct melody arose on the first violin above the ambiguity of pitch, as if yearning for a tonal foothold it ultimately doesn't get.

The work that best fit the experimentation tag was Jason Eckardt's bold "Subject." It used two studio flashbulbs and umbrellas to approximate the horrible torture technique that combines sensory deprivation with bursts of pupil-burning light and ear-splitting noise. The randomness of the blasts made for an uncomfortable, unsettling experience, even if the work felt more like a demonstration than a performance.

The concert ended with Glass' diatonic Fifth String Quartet. Here JACK Quartet was able to show off a more gentle side, creating a shimmering tone for the post-minimalist music.

Andrew Druckenbrod: adruckenbrod@post-gazette.com; 412-263-1750. Blog: www.post-gazette.com/classicalmusings. Twitter: @druckenbr
First Published 2012-02-26 23:10:19

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