Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

The String Quartet and its Discontents

February 15, 2011

The members of the JACK Quartet
Photo: mine 2011

What better way to celebrate Valentine’s Day than taking apart one of the central ensembles of the chamber music repertory piece by piece. OK, these two things have nothing to do with each other, but Monday Evening Concerts still managed to come up with a strong and interesting program for arguably the most commodified of holidays by inviting the JACK String Quartet back to Los Angeles on Monday night. The ensemble had performed for the series last year with Georg Friedrich Haas’ String Quartet No. 3, which they played in complete darkness in Pasadena in one of the classical music highlights of all last year. Given the success of their last program here and the JACK Quartet’s increasingly high profile in the new(er) music realm, this visit was highly anticipated, and as it turns out worth the wait.

The evening’s theme dealt with re-imagining the string quartet in a contemporary context and was cast under the title, “The Explorers.” Of course, any program promising this much deconstruction would naturally start with the music of John Cage, and his 1950 String Quartet in Four Parts perfectly set the stage. Cage’s work was an early call to question both the content as well as the process of performance. The work draws inspiration from the four seasons which end up sounding more similar than different except perhaps for the final movement of the work, which invokes Spring as a contrasting short folk tune in defiance of the more discordant material preceding it. The groundwork having been laid, the evening took off from there with two string quartets from the young composer Aaron Cassidy, both of which questioned the basic principles that guide the very production of sound by the musicians using their instruments. Cassidy’s String Quartet from 2002 takes the music of the traditional single staff and cleaves it in two as if written for the piano. Performers are given separate sets of instructions for each hand resulting in something that is both unexpected sounding and physically involved. The aptly named Second String Quartet, which Cassidy wrote specifically for the JACK ensemble in 2010, builds further on this notion. Cassidy uses a color-coded notational system that guides the physical movements of players producing sound in favor of prescribing resultant pitches or tones. Both pieces were intriguing to watch as the players responded to the music in terms of their physical demands. Sandwiched between the two Cassidy string quartets was Webern’s Six Bagatelles, which sounded like Wagner when set up against these far more deconstructed works.

The second half of the program was devoted to the fifth string quartet of Horatiu Radulescu subtitled “Before the Universe was Born.” Radulescu’s work had made a previous appearance on the MEC stage in 2007 prior to the composer’s untimely death in 2008. This quartet from the early 1990s was making its U.S. Premiere and used non-standard tunings of most of the strings on all four instruments to produce its spectral sounds. The microtonal shifts between the players created a wash of sound through the piece’s 30-minute single movement that was surprisingly organic for so technically sophisticated a work. The JACK Quartet players were as impressive in their musical communication skills here in the light as they had previously been in the dark last year. Their mastery of such difficult music and interest in pushing the boundaries raises hopes that they will have a long and active career. And even if it wasn’t wine and red roses, it was a wonderful treat for this Valentine’s Day audience.


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