JACK Quartet to perform contemporary string music in Ann Arbor

Sunday, March 6, 2016 - 5:35pm

In the classical music genre, musicians often become specialized in one or two particular types of performance. While the majority of conservatory performance students dream of a solo career, only a small number actually end up touring the world, playing with one orchestra one night and another the night after. As they move into the life of a working musician, most former students will filter into other roles — a fact which, while initially upsetting to some young musicians, is actually quite beneficial. This diversification allows for the development of a more nuanced artistic relationship between the musician and their close confreres and generally results in more interesting music (note that none of this is meant to disparage the role of the soloist, but only to point out that other musical paths are equally as valid and meritorious). Some musicians become accompanists, others orchestral players, some church musicians, many chamber players — some people even manage to be more than one.

One of the most exciting types of ensembles appearing today is the “new music” ensemble, a group of musicians dedicated to performing the music of living or recently living composers. The preceding years have seen the rise of many such groups — a few of the more prominent include eighth blackbird (which won a Grammy Award this year for the album Filament), Alarm Will Sound and yMusic — many of which play with stunning vitality. One such engaging ensemble is the JACK Quartet, which will be performing in Ann Arbor this Tuesday at the Walgreen Drama Center.

“We met at Eastman School of Music [at the University of Rochester],” JACK’s violinist Ari Steisfeld said in an interview with the Michigan Daily.

“Eastman, at the time we were there — and I don’t think it’s changed too much — had a really vibrant community of student performers performing contemporary music, and we were part of that community.”

Founding the ensemble in 2007, the initiators of the JACK Quartet — John Pickford Richards, Ari Streisfeld, Christopher Otto and Kevin McFarland (the quartet’s name is derived from the first letter of each of their names) — were brought together by a mutual enthusiasm for new music.

“There were just tons and tons of contemporary music concerts happening [at Eastman] … and it was just really exciting.” Streisfeld said. “Those concerts were actually probably the most well attended concerts at Eastman, by the students but even by people outside the school. There was just this incredible excitement about contemporary music.”

However, it wasn’t until the future quartet members graduated from college that they decided to form an ensemble together.

“We played together at Eastman — not necessarily as a quartet that many times, but just in different formations,” Streisfeld said. “When we all graduated some opportunities came our way to play as a quartet and it kind of built from there. There was never a question about what we wanted to do; it was very clear to us from the beginning that contemporary music should be our focus.”

In addition to performing, JACK also participates in many educational events for young composers. As part of the William Bolcom Residency this week at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance, the quartet will also be teaching a master class and reading works by student composers.

During the summer, JACK has a residency at New Music on the Point, a festival in Vermont. As part of this festival, the quartet works with student composers to workshop and perform new compositions. Carolina Heredia, who is currently a graduate student at the University, was one such composer, and JACK will be premiering her piece “Ausencias/Ausências/Absences” for string quartet and electronic media on Tuesday’s concert.

“[Heredia] has gone on several trips to different countries in South America — she’s from Argentina — but she’s travelled to Chile and some other countries in South America, and has made field recordings while there of various musics,” Streisfeld said, describing the material used for the electronic media in the piece.

The first piece on JACK’s program for Tuesday night, however, is John Luther Adams’s “The Wind in High Places,” a hypnotizingly beautiful work composed in 2011 which is soporific (in the best sense of the word) and anodyne when compared to much of the more “aggressive” and “spiky” music of the 20th and 21st century.

“John Luther Adams has become a very, very famous composer — he just won the Pulitzer Prize [in 2014] and Grammies and things like that … we started playing [‘The Wind in High Places’] several years ago, and then we recorded it with [Adams], and that recording came out last year and has done very well,” Streisfeld said.

“It’s a piece that we really enjoy playing, and the whole idea of the piece is that we never actually depress our strings,” he continued. “The whole piece is made up of open strings and harmonics, so you never actually push the strings down, you only touch the strings, and it’s really a kind of ethereal sound world that he’s created.”

Following the performance of the Adams, the quartet will take an intermission before beginning the rest of the concert, including a piece by Caroline Shaw, a Pulitzer Prize winning composer. 

“[The piece being performed] is a quartet that she wrote for us, that’s actually based on a larger work she originally composed for her ensemble Roomful of Teeth, which is an ensemble of eight voices,” Streisfeld said. “And so she made a string quartet version of this piece called ‘Ritornello’ which takes opening harmonies from [Claudio] Monteverdi’s [L]’Orfeo — a very famous early opera — and then expands those harmonies in ways that kind of reimagine them.”

The conclusion of the concert will provide a striking contrast to the first pieces on the program. Unlike the Adams work, the final piece will serve to exemplify the kind of “aggressive” and “spiky” music which many listeners have come to associate with the 20th and 21st centuries. However, these adjectives should not necessarily be regarded with entailing the usual negative connotations associated with them, but rather as mere aesthetic descriptors of a music which is complex, innovative and startlingly beautiful.

“On the end of the program we’ll be playing a piece which we’ve probably played the most of anything in our repertoire,” Streisfeld said. “ It’s called ‘Tratras,’ by Greek composer Iannis Xenakis, and it’s a crazy piece. It involves all sorts of extended techniques, and it’s kind of 15-16 minutes of pure energy … it’s a very exciting work.”

Speaking to the appeal of specializing in contemporary music, Streisfeld explained the excitement that accompanies the work the quartet does.

“Being part of the creation of new work, being the initial interpreters of new piece, bringing it to life is very exciting,” he said. “Collaborating with composers both young and old of all different kinds is a really exciting experience, you’re kind of on the ground floor with some brand new idea.”