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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Concert Review: The Leading Edge of Life

The JACK Quartet opens the NY Phil Biennial 2016.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
They'll melt your face: the JACK Quartet.
Photo by Caroline Savage.
Every Biennial begins with a single concert. On Monday night, a crowd of cognoscenti seated in the upstairs auditorium of the 92nd St. Y heard the JACK Quartet open the NY Phil Biennial 2016, the New York Philharmonic's three-week festival celebrating the sharp leading edge of modern art music.

The concert was introduced by Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert who invited the assembled to join him and the ensemble in their celebration of adventurous music horizons. And then the JACK Quartet took the stage, four musicians who have become local New York heroes thanks to their gutsy approach to modern music.

Contrary to a popular meme right now that refers to orchestras as "1800s cover bands", this was very much music of the 21st century, with all three composers on the program very much alive (and two of them seated in the audience.) The three pieces were performed without intermission in a darkened room that invited concentration and focus and a bright acoustic that made the music bloom.

First up was Canadian composer Marc Sabat's Euler Lattice Spirals Scenery, a work that explores the idea of "Pythagorean tuning," a system of generating sounds based around the perfect fifth. Indeed, the work opened with open-stringed drones played by all four players, and only when the drones built in sound, volume and intensity did they apply fingers to the necks of their instruments.

Mr. Sabat's music is unusual but inviting, using a very old technique to create new sounds in the tradition of the neo-classicists. Derek Bermel, who followed was a total contrast. His Intonations had the four instruments mimic all sorts of sounds, from the buzzing wail of a harmonica  to the up-and-down fireworks of a '30s jazz band. Hints of the great songwriters peppered the movements.

In the second half of the quartet, Mr. Bermel's references moved from the jazz age to the '80s, as the quartet players imitated the crunch of overdriven guitars and even the deep throaty scratch of a rap deejay's turntables. This was an exciting, kaleidoscopic work, bustling with energy and ideas, and one this writer wants to hear again.

Cenk Ergün was the last composer featured. His Sonare seemed to be more about performance practice than performance, opening with a John Cage-like section where the musicians pressed their left hands down on the strings in the correct spots but did not bow, thus producing no sound. Eventually, they generated slow, keening sounds that rose from the murky depths of silence before building to a climax.

The last work, Celare was of a very different character, hard-driving and persistent with a rapid churn coming from the cello and viola. This burst of high speed gave way to a slower section featuring the higher voices of the quartet, which alternated with the churning, jogging figure until the work finally rolled to a stop. 

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