'Live from Columbia' Virtual Concert Series Hosts the JACK Quartet
BY Angeline Dimambro, February 23, 2021
The critically acclaimed JACK Quartet is the latest musical group to perform in Miller Theatre’s celebrated series of Pop-Up Concerts. The virtual concert is part of the Live from Columbia series, which brings a diverse range of musicians to The Lantern, the top-floor venue at The Lenfest Center for the Arts, to record their performances. The concerts then premiere live, bringing together audience members from around the globe for a night of music and community.
Melissa Smey, Associate Dean at the School of the Arts and Executive Director of Miller Theatre and the Arts Initiative, founded The Pop-Up Concert series at Miller Theatre. “One of my passionate goals is to build new audiences for classical music by curating concerts that are both inviting and stimulating,” Smey said. The JACK Quartet takes classical music’s iconic string quartet configuration and reinvents it with their talent, passion, and rigor.
Hailed by The New York Times as the “nation’s most important quartet,” the JACK Quartet is one of the most acclaimed, renowned, and respected groups performing today. JACK has maintained an unwavering commitment to performing and commissioning new works, giving voice to underheard composers, and cultivating an ever-greater sense of openness toward contemporary classical music. Comprising violinists Christopher Otto and Austin Wulliman, violist John Pickford Richards, and cellist Jay Campbell, JACK is focused on new work, working with artists such as Julia Wolfe, George Lewis, Chaya Czernowin, Helmut Lachenmann, and many more.
For their Pop-Up Concert, the JACK Quartet performed Helmut Lachenmann’s string quartet "Grido," in addition to two other solo pieces also written by the composer. Each piece explores nontraditional techniques as well as sounds. “The music on this program requires virtuosity, commitment, and focused concentration from the musicians,” Smey said. “For the listener, it rewards curiosity. Lachenmann explores the possibility of sound, and if you’re open to it, you may start to hear music differently. My hope is that [the audience] will be left with an expanded insight into his creative practice.”
As in-program note moderator Lara Pellegrinelli highlighted, Lachenmann has described his aesthetic as “musique concrète instrumental, ‘a music of sounds, not notes’, that reimagines instruments through their physical, acoustic properties.” Lachenmann’s “Grido” (2001-02) demands incredible precision from musicians. JACK Quartet’s mastery of the piece is especially impressive for a young ensemble. “‘Grido’ develops its own sound world in which the instruments do indeed shout,” Pellegrinelli noted. “They also stutter, sigh, and whisper, moving in and out of phase with each other on a quest to discover new forms of beauty.”
Over 250 people tuned in to watch the live performance together, which also featured a rendition of Lachenmann’s solo cello piece, “Pression” (1969), performed by JACK quartet member Jay Campbell. The piece, which Pelligrinelli described as “an instrumental study that requires players to unlearn and reapproach the cello,” confounds the expectations listeners may have of classical music. Violinist Chistopher Otto performed “Toccatina” (1986) to close the quartet’s performance. While a toccata is traditionally designed to exhibit the performer's touch and technique, Lachenmann’s “Toccatina,” as Pelligrinelli noted, “is alternatively intimate—with melodic lines emerging from tones produced by tapping the metal screw at end of the bow on the strings—and brusque, with ringing pizzicato.”