It feels a little cruel to be reporting how good the JACK Quartet’s concert on Sunday afternoon was.
After all, it won’t be repeated any time soon, at least not in New York. And few people saw it; the Morgan Library & Museum’s Gilder Lehrman Hall was far from full. But JACK’s performance, a head-spinning marathon of Elliott Carter’s five string quartets, two and a half hours of notoriously thorny music, was one of the most eye-opening and exhilarating concerts I’ve heard all season.
The fearless JACK players — Christopher Otto and Austin Wulliman, violins; John Pickford Richards, viola; and Jay Campbell, cello — will continue to offer Carter à la carte. And, in an email, they said a recording of the full set is on the way. But rarely are these works presented together, live. (Die-hard fans on Sunday reminisced about hearing the Pacifica Quartet do all five; that was over a decade ago.)
The marathon approach isn’t simply a flex of endurance and technique, though JACK was virtually infallible on both counts. It’s also a window into how Carter’s attitude about the nature of quartets evolved through his lifetime.
And what a lifetime: The year he was born, 1908, Mahler’s Seventh Symphony had its premiere; the year he died, 2012, brought Caroline Shaw’s “Partita.” Theodore Roosevelt was his first president; Barack Obama, his last. He finished his final work just months before his death, at 103.
The string quartets date from 1950 to ’95. On Sunday, JACK didn’t present them in chronological order — which doesn’t really matter. If Carter’s output has a through line of progress, it’s a fuzzy one. He was more interested in novelty; he once said that every piece he wrote was “a kind of crisis in my life.” Each of his quartets is a singular interrogation of the form.
The Fifth (1995) is where the Morgan program began. This deeply human piece — made all the more so by JACK’s interpretation, which teased out the expressiveness that critics have sometimes said Carter’s music lacks — is like a love letter to the art of chamber music. With hazy harmonics, crunchy rolled chords and metallic plucks, the series of short movements and interludes conjures rehearsal conversations in which someone offers an idea or a demonstration of how a passage should be played, and the rest respond. The final measure, a violinist’s harmonious double stop, suggests eventual agreement.
Next was the Pulitzer Prize-winning Quartet No. 2 (1959), in which each player is given an individual strand of melodies, harmonic intervals and rhythms that develops throughout the 22-minute work. Imagine “Twitter: The Quartet,” with each voice brazenly independent, stubbornly struggling to be heard above the fray.
It’s impressive that the JACK musicians, with conflicting characters to portray, remained so tightly together; it’s miraculous that they did so while barely signaling to one another with eye contact or gestures. (Then again, this is an ensemble that specializes in performing Georg Friedrich Haas’s music in total darkness.) I’m surprised the Second Quartet wasn’t immediately followed by the Fourth (1986), which feels like a sequel — but a utopian one, in which the players decide on a compromise between individuality and the common good.
At 45 minutes, Carter’s rhapsodic Quartet No. 1 (1950-51) is the longest of the bunch, a cri de coeur of a composer breaking free from what he, in his writings, described as “my professional and social responsibility to write interesting, direct, easily understood music.” But, for all its intellectual rigor, this work has heart hiding under the surface. And humor, as when vibrato-rich sostenuto in the violins is interrupted by a belching low note from the cello.
The Third Quartet (1971), which also won the Pulitzer, calls for dividing the ensemble into two duos, facing one another. On one side were Mr. Otto and Mr. Campbell, with a rubato attitude as they navigated the progress of four distinct musical characters; on the other, Mr. Wulliman and Mr. Richards, their rhythm more regular, offering six contrasting characters.
It’s a lot to take in for an audience. Just imagine what it’s like for the players. These Carter works are brutal tests of an ensemble’s skill and stamina.
On Sunday, the JACK passed. Times five.