A concert featuring composers equal parts male and female is unfortunately a rarity even today. The JACK Quartet’s program on Saturday night, at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at Maryland in College Park, was the exception. In keeping with this ensemble’s leanings, the music was all from the 20th century and, to be precise, predominantly in dissonant, experimental styles.
Flux has marked this 10th anniversary year for the quartet. Last summer, the group lost half its founding members, violinist Ari Streisfeld and cellist Kevin McFarland. New violinist Austin Wulliman and cellist Jay Campbell seem to have hit the ground running in this most complex repertoire, but the ensemble does not yet have the same easy cohesion.
That quality was hard to discern at first in Ruth Crawford Seeger’s String Quartet from 1931, which opens wildly in a thicket of dissonance. The new violinist’s solos in the second movement were strong, but the pace of the third movement was too harried to achieve the amorphous, organic growth of sound in the overlapping clustered harmonies.
Morton Feldman’s “Structures” briefly explored tiny ultrasoft motifs, ticking away like a clock. The diametrical opposite, Julia Wolfe’s “Early That Summer,” built up tension through a driving stream of notes, although the expected climaxes never materialized. Wolfe seemed pressed to find a convincing conclusion, ending oddly on a sustained cluster.
Violist John Pickford Richards described Iannis Xenakis’s string quartets, a JACK specialty since the group’s 2009 recording, as “inhuman to play.” An early computer generated the first quartet, “ST/4-1,080262,” according to the probability algorithm Xenakis created. Its rigors, skillfully navigated by the performers, were matched by the abusive focus on bitterly dissonant double stops in the last quartet, “Ergma.” The combination of two such works on one concert was equally inhuman to hear.