It says something about the JACK Quartet that Charles Ives’s second string quartet is one of the oldest pieces in their repertoire. On Saturday night, the New York-based foursome brought the three-day Ives Project, hosted by the Post-Classical Ensemble, to its conclusion with an Ives-centered program in the Mansion at Strathmore.
Balancing the chaotic jumble of Ives was Philip Glass’s lyrical, opulently beautiful fifth string quartet, from 1991. It is a throwback to the cult of beauty in the history of the string quartet, recalling Glass’s avowed affinity for the music of Franz Schubert, with whom he shares a birthday. The JACK Quartet may have gained notoriety for its eclectic programming, but they will endure because they can play with a glowing, warm sound and poetic phrasing, even with simple, repetitive motifs.
In the middle was the meditative Om of Caleb Burhans’s “Contritus,” an atmospheric lament commissioned by the Library of Congress and premiered there by the JACK Quartet last year. It provided a much-needed moment of calm after Julia Wolfe’s “Dig Deep,” from 1995, a rock-fueled, obsessive hammering of clusters and jagged melodic shards, the aural equivalent of an incapacitating LED flashlight. Wolfe’s final mark in the score, over a rest with a fermata, is “sudden end, feel the rest.” Savor the silence is more like it.
Given the last word, Ives still sounded the most subversive, even though he completed the second quartet in 1913 (supposedly — with Ives, one never knows). The work depicts a heated discussion among four men, leading to a violent argument and a reconciling walk up a mountain under the stars. The JACK Quartet played up the music’s pugilistic furor and zany melodic allusions — mid-fisticuffs, the obsequious second violin plays snippets of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy in a plea for brotherly love. After constantly yammering at one another for most of the piece, the four instruments came together in an ecstatic unison in the last movement. An ostinato scale in the cello, repeated many times as the piece faded, turned the ears back again to Philip Glass.
Downey is a freelance writer.