JACK Quartet brings Helmut Lachenmann to the Miller Theater

United StatesUnited States Lachenmann: JACK Quartet (Christopher Otto & Austin Wulliman, violins; John Pickford Richards, viola; Jay Campbell, cello), Miller Theater at Columbia University, New York, 16.2.2021, and streaming (Concert Link). (DS)

JACK Quartet (c) Beowulf Sheehan

Lachenmann – String Quartet No.3 ‘Grido’; ‘Pression’; ‘Toccatina’

Deep within the pandemic, music continues to find its way into our homes. This new concert experience – which has become increasingly familiar since last March – has its merits. For one thing, you will be able to hear this concert for yourself and not simply rely on my experience of it. Columbia University’s Miller Theater brought the JACK Quartet live to a world-wide audience on 16 February in three works by Helmut Lachenmann, and the performance is still available on YouTube. You did, however, miss out on the lively conversation in the chat stream that ranged from Lachenmann quotes to exclamations of wonder from listeners to simple hellos from Asia, Europe and New York’s Upper West Side.

The JACK Quartet is going on their sixteenth year. While still a ‘young’ group compared to some others, they play more like a resurrected foursome who meet again in each lifetime, ready to ‘level up’. ‘Grido’ was the showcased composition, set within the glass-encased stage that looks out over Harlem. It is a model example of ‘instrumental musique concrète’ from Lachenmann’s repertoire. Layers, sonic emotions, whacks, swoons, tremolo and deep reverbs of sound waves all emerge to construct a musical space of nonconformity.

Where’s the beauty in that, the skeptic classical listener might wonder. I would respond that it is in the connection of these sounds and the unexpected forms of silence which reveal a truth to our sensorial experience of the world around us. And it must be noted that the JACK Quartet plays it with beauty as their goal – an aesthetic reverence leads their interpretation, which allows the listener to sit back comfortably in what might be the unfamiliar.

Two solo works are also in the performance. Jay Campbell, cellist, and Christopher Otto, violinist, each took to the stage alone – very much alone, in fact, given the tangible sense of no surrounding audience. But these couldn’t have been better pieces to play during a pandemic livestream: it is worth getting the curated close-up camera views that show how Campbell and Otto approach their instruments as tools using unconventional forms of touch to reveal the sounds.

Campbell performed ‘Pression’ to perfection. He and the cello seemed to work together as a duo, each interchangeably becoming canvas and paint brush to realize the composition. When Campbell plays, he extends beyond musician and is like a passionate surgeon whose hands express a love of their precise work. This concert was no exception.

Otto tapped and plucked the violin in ways rarely seen in ‘Toccatina’, which Lachenmann describes as a ‘diminutive’ piece. Like an ant walking across the strings, each of Otto’s fingers brought a fresh perspective to the concept of delicate performance. He even had to play the pegs with his bow and make extensive use of the frog with secretive gestures which, luckily, we catch up close from laptops at home. It all fell together like a tiny poem whispered by a child to a friend – ephemeral and touching.

Now that the virtual concert has made location no barrier, there is an endless choice of concert viewing options. But this is most certainly one to stop your mouse on, and click.

Daniele Sahr

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