When it comes to cutting-edge music, the young virtuosos of the Jack String Quartet don’t shrink from much. They’re renowned for their fearless embrace of even the thorniest new works, and their performance of the complete quartets of Iannis Xenakis a couple of years ago in Baltimore was one of the most ear-changing, tour-de-force chamber music concerts of the year. So when the group arrived at the Barns at Wolf Trap on Friday night (with clarinetist and composer Derek Bermel), it promised to be — to say the least — a provocative event.
The evening opened with one of the great modernist masterpieces of the 20th century, the beautifully austere Quartet No. 2 by Gyorgi Ligeti. Dating from 1968, it’s built almost entirely from textures, delicate fragments of sound and sudden, explosive contrasts — and with few familiar handholds, it’s not an easy work. But the Jack players brought it off with compelling naturalness, as if it were crystallizing out of thin air. It was a subtle performance with a strange and almost otherworldly lyricism.
Derek Bermel’s “A Short History of the Universe” — a clarinet quintet receiving its world premiere — could not have been more different. As artist-in-residence at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, Bermel has been studying gravitational physics and string theory and applying them to music. Uh-oh, you might think; but in fact, “History” proved to be a surprisingly playful work, from the rubbery glissandos of the opening “multiverse” to the songlike “heart of space” (imagine a Schubert-inflected Middle Eastern bluesy dirge) and the jaunty dance and hymn-like close of “twistor scattering,” in which “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” seemed to echo faintly through a slightly demented cosmos. All that freewheeling postmodernism made for an engaging, extremely enjoyable listen — an intriguing new work from a very 21st-century composer.
Johannes Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op. 115, closed out the evening. It’s a magnificent work, but unfortunately the ensemble never seemed to get completely on top of it. While Bermel has a distinctive and thoughtful sense of phrasing, his clarinet tone has a bit of an edge to it, and the work felt labored all the way through, never achieving the effortless, golden Brahmsian glow that can make this work one of the most beautiful things on the planet to hear.