The last time JACK Quartet appeared in Seattle — in May of 2011 — the New York string ensemble performed twice.
One of those concerts was set in the dark in the Sorrento Hotel’s ballroom, with JACK’s musicians seated far from one another as they largely improvised their way through Georg Friedrich Haas’ String Quartet No. 3 (“In iij Noct”).
The other show was at Town Hall, where JACK was joined by Seattle Symphony principal cellist Joshua Roman in a program that included works by avant-garde composers Gyorgy Ligeti and Iannis Xenakis.
Both situations were typical of JACK’s passion for the cutting edge in music. On Tuesday, the group will once again team with Roman at Town Hall (Roman is artistic director of the venue’s Town Music series), this time exploring musical frontiers from the 15th to the 21st centuries.
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“Playing complicated, extremely avant-garde music is our calling,” says the quartet’s violist, John Pickford Richards. “It’s what we truly love doing. We all compose, and we’re committed to presenting contemporary music to as many audiences as we can.”
The concert’s major offering is the world premiere of Jefferson Friedman’s Quintet. A prominent composer of symphonic and chamber works, as well as works for solo instrument and song cycles, Friedman’s music is frequently premiered by the likes of the National Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chiara String Quartet.
Town Music commissioned Friedman to write the piece for JACK and Roman, a surprisingly rare addition to existing repertoire for string quartet plus cello.
“You’d be surprised at how different writing for that instrumentation is from writing for a string quartet,” says Friedman. “There are so many permutations and combinations of different instruments you can come up with just by adding another cello. For example, because you have two cellos and two violins, you can have symmetrical configurations you can’t get with a top-heavy string quartet.”
Friedman is concise and guarded in his description of Quintet.
“It’s fifteen minutes long, in one unbroken movement. It’s about the grieving process, the anger and depression that follows when you lose something. It came out of personal experience.”
In an email, Roman describes Quintet as “compact, emotionally driven … Its effect is felt in a very deep and profound place all humanity shares.”
Adds Richards: “It’s introspective, grooving and intense.”
Sans Roman, JACK (the group’s handle is taken from the initials of its members’ first names, including violinists Ari Streisfeld and Christopher Otto, and cellist Kevin McFarland) will play Otto’s arrangement of Rodericus’ “Angelorum Psalat,” a work written in 1400 for two voices.
Also on the program is Brian Ferneyhough’s “Exordium,” written for the 100th birthday of the late Elliott Carter, and Witold Lutoslawski’s 1964 String Quartet, in which, Richards says, players “develop material on the spot. The piece is determined by the performers.”
JACK’s members met while attending the Eastman School of Music in 1999.
“We got to know each other playing in a lot of different combinations,” says Richards. “Then we got an opportunity to play together. In 2005, we decided to commit.”
“I love experiencing their intensity,” says Roman, “both as a listener and a collaborator.”
Tom Keogh: firstname.lastname@example.org