BWW Review: The JACK Quartet Says Hello/Goodbye

While filing out of the JACK Quartet concert at the Bowdoin International Music Festival on July 25, one wise-cracking audience member was heard to describe the foursome as having a light touch.
Hardly. The quartet had just finished an edge-of-your-seat rendition of Iannis Xenakis' "Tetras," complete with special effects that pushed their instruments to physical limits. In fact, the crowd got to hear the first five minutes or so of the piece twice, after violinist Ari Streisfeld stopped the proceedings to replace a broken string. Such was the stresses placed on instrument, player and listener by the challenging work.
The Xenakis piece topped-off a program which paired pieces 500-600 years apart in dates of composition, revealing how the work of some early composers can speak to contemporary ears and how contemporary composers and arrangers have become sonic archaeologists. Streisfeld noted how the JACK generally focused on the very old and the very new and little that came in between.
"Tetras" was paired with a piece, the only one extant we were told, by a 15th century fellow named Rodericus. JACK vilolinist Christopher Otto's arrangement fleshed out the original work for two voices into a sparkling mixture that effectively suggested historical continuities much easier on the ear than Xenakis' slippery onslaught.
Composer Derek Bermel spoke briefly before his "Intonations" was paired with Streisfeld's arrangement of three pieces by Guillaume de Machaut from the 14th century. Bermel noted the reliance on the "vernacular" in both works. Indeed, Machaut's reference to early folk music was apparent in the appealing lilt of his lines, while Bermel's reference to ethnic traditions was most successful in the "Hymn/Homily" movement. Bermel elsewhere allowed a stark modernism to storm through at times.
Pairing of work by Carlo Gesualdo, who, Streisfeld noted, anticipated late-Romantic harmonics, with an episodic piece by 30-something composer Caroline Shaw revealed the latter adept at locating the sweet spot through repetition.
It was announced that this would be one of the last performances of this JACK foursome. Streisfeld and cellist Kevin McFarland are departing, leaving Otto and violist John Pickford Richards to take on new musical partners in the fall (already chosen, according to the New York Times).
Likely all will continue to explore music both unusual and challenging.

Photo courtesy of the Bowdoin International Music Festival.



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