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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, March 7, 2018

Concert Review: Unbowed, Unbeaten, Unbroken

Sō Percussion and the JACK Quartet play new works at Zankel Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Photo of Sō Percussion by Janette Beckman. Photo of the JACK Quartet by Shervin Lainez.
Carnegie Hall, with its multiple venues and well of donors is instrumental to the contemporary music community. Starting in 2016, the historic venue celebrated its 125th year with the 125 Commissions project, offering 125 new compositions in celebration of the venue’s anniversary in 2016. On Tuesday night, the subterranean stage of Zankel Hall hosted two important contemporary ensembles: Sō Percussion and the JACK Quartet, performing a trio of these new pieces.

The concert opened with the JACK men taking the stage, their music stands set up among a forest of drums, wires, keyboards and xylorimbas. Their mission: the U.S. premiere of the Eighth String Quartet by Philip Glass. This New York-based ensemble were the right artists for so important a mission, as they eschew the repertory of the past for a welcome and necessary focus in the music of the present.

Unusually, these three movements (there are no tempo markings provided) formed a short and relatively cheerful whole. Mr. Glass continues to follow his well-known path, using small musical cells to build in each other and create enormous structures that unfold over time, each musician played a similar role.This bustle of ant-like activity, creating three movements that followed the fast-slow-fast format. The effect of each was hypnotic and relaxing, a web of whole tones that teased and ultimately enchanted the ear.

The other two composers on the program do not have Mr. Glass’ fame, but their music proved to be most stimulating. First up was Broken Unison for Percussion Quartet, a world premiere and Carnegie commission by composer Donnacha Dennehy.The JACK players were replaced by the men of Sō Percussion. Each took a station, equipped with mallets, xylorimbas, and glockenspiel. Two of them also played orchestra-sized bass drums, armed with two kick pedals. These were played by stepping on them with the player’s heel, and the different strikers produced a muffled boom and a terrifyingly loud thump.

Those drums announced the changes throughout Mr. Dennehy's piece, cast in three movements that consisted of smaller subsections of different rhythmic ideas. The players occasionally switched positions and changed mallets, but other than that littler interrupted the series of musical pulses generated by their dexterity and skill. The constant overlapping sounds of the tuned percussion instruments created microtones and it was these long notes, aided by the bowing of bars on the instrument itself that brought a keening, unsettling wail to this all-percussion piece. The bass drums spoke more urgently and forcefully in the final movement, bringing a sense of impending doom and claustrophobia to the sonic landscape.

The two quartets formed an octet for the evenings final work: Dan Trueman's aptly titled Songs That Are Hard To Sing. Mr. Truman’s work featured the four string players using a unique tuning, enabling their instruments to play a C major chord instead of one of the more common  concert tunings. Sō's Jason Treuting sat at a small drum kit while Josh Quillin stationed himself behind a battery of metallophones and another big bass drum, this one set up horizontally. The other two gentlemen sat a bitKlaviers. These digital pianos allow the player to replicate the prepared piano effects of John Cage without all the messy hardware and work that goes into preparing such an instrument.

The work was in five movements and was a mixed success. Occasionally the repeated percussion and amplified keyboards would struggle for dominance with the strings, complicating matters further was the use of a musical saw, played with great solemnity by Erich Cha-Beach and Mr. Quillin's use of whining bowed effects from the other side of the stage. However, the effect of each of these songs on the ear proved engrossing and eminently listenable, and for new works by today's composers, one could hardly ask for anything more.

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