by Robert Leeper
Ancient and innovative can easily coexist. In music especially, composers and performers throughout history have looked back for guidence and inspiration as they move forward. Steve Reich has openly written about the debt his music owes to the 13th-century French composer Pérotin, and one of Felix Mendelssohn’s greatest achievements was his rediscovery of J.S Bach’s music with his mounting of the St. Matthew Passion.
On Sunday night, the JACK Quartet and guest cellist Joshua Roman continued this tradition of finding inspiration in history and programmed their findings alongside the rule-breakers of today, presenting three madrigals by the intensely expressive renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo (arranged for sting quintet by JACK violinist Ari Streisfeld), as well as works by Joshua Roman, Brian Ferneyhough, and a new piece—premiered by the quintet just three weeks ago in Seattle—by Jefferson Friedman.
Gesualdo, perhaps as well known for the murder of his wife and her lover in 1590 as for his music, continues to bewitch, mystify, and captivate modern audiences. Streisfeld’s arrangements captured the chromatic wandering of the sophisticated vocal polyphony while adding a new twist by including effects available to the modern string player. The group truly excelled during slower portions of the madrigals, with each strange and beautiful part clearly heard as the group breathed exciting new life into these short pieces.
At the start of the piece, a plaintive viola struggled to stay afloat between the nervous tremolo coming from both above and below. As the redemptive process began, the warmth of two cellos added a powerful rich sound to the subtly shifting harmonic, melodic, and timbral changes. Later, the cellos were attacked with harsh, aggressive bow strokes while the original viola line was passed from one instrument to another.
As Gesualdo broke new ground and wrote his own rules for music, so did Brian Ferneyough in paying homage to groundbreaking composer Elliot Carter in Exordium. Written for Carter’s 100th birthday, the 43-movement work epitomized the jagged, fragmented, rhythmic style often associated with Elliot Carter. The quintet executed the precisely synchronized movements seamlessly as they explored rhythmic intricacies and technically demanding glissandos, harmonics, and other special effects.
Joshua Roman also brought his compositional efforts with Riding Light, alternating between melancholic sliding harmonics and powerful bass double stops to create an almost Americana sound reminiscent of Aaron Copland.
The JACK quartet is quickly building the expectation of great collaborations at LPR, and their work with Joshua Roman did not disappoint. Here's to hoping they return to the venue soon with more great collaborations and a continued approach to programming new—and old—music.