The JACK Quartet (the name is an acronym of the first names of the members, John Pickford Richards, viola, Ari Streisfeld, violin, Christopher Otto, violin, and Kevin McFarland) is young both in terms of the age of its members and its recent date of formation, with an impressive eleven recordings to its credit since 2008, including the complete string quartets of Xenakis. Unlike many string quartets that focus on the repertoire of the 19th century and add an occasional modern or post-modern work, the sound of the contemporary is the JACK’s bread and butter. They appropriately began their first program for Duke Performances (in conjunction with the Chamber Arts Society) with the modernist masterwork, the op. 9 Bagatelles of Anton Webern from almost a century ago. I was happy to have grabbed a seat well down-front (the concert was general seating), since the dynamics for this intimate set of works were so restrained I could hardly imagine the details telling for listeners more than halfway back. The second work on the half was the third of the three string quartets op. 41 by Robert Schumann, from 1842. My inner curmudgeon wonders if this was presented as a sop to those listeners who might have been put off by an entire program of contemporary works. It certainly did not offer the level of insight evidenced by the Webern. The opening Andante gave the impression of an unnecessary amount of vibrato linked to a certain queasy feeling about the intonation. I was not persuaded by the quartet’s handling of the rhetoric of the opening (difficult, it’s true), so it was difficult to sense what they (and Schumann) were driving at. In the famous words of Fontenelle, “Sonate, que me veux tu?” (Sonata, what are you trying to say to me?) Indeed, the work as a whole is rather odd, with little development in the first movement, a second movement that is a scherzo and at the same time a set of variations, and a rather lengthy adagio. It must be confessed that the JACK sent off the finale in virtuoso style, and was applauded warmly.

The JACK apparently makes a specialty of arranging medieval and renaissance works for the quartet (including Machaut and Gesualdo), but on the evidence of the two pieces they shared on the second half (a Dufay isorhythmic motet, Moribus et genere, and Angelorum psalat, by Rodericus) their performances do not provide the same level of insight into such works as do the leading figures who specialize in this repertoire (for example, the recording of the latter work found on a 2010 release by the Ferrara Ensemble), nor did the amateurish spoken notes on the works shed much light.

The real meat on the program was the concluding work, Physical Property, by renowned composer and guitarist Steve Mackey, now one of the senior professors in composition at Princeton University. The work was premiered by the Kronos Quartet with Mackey in July 1992 and was recorded for their album Short Stories. Since then Mackey has also recorded it with the Brentano Quartet (released by Albany in 2009). It was a real pleasure to have the composer present and directing the performance from his guitar (well-matched dynamically, and with a cutting timbre). The work is accessible (though not in a simplistic way), with clearly distinguished motives, and successfully combines idioms typical to both electric guitar (including whammy bar) and string quartet. Mackey’s playing (the composer, now 56, resembles a musical Sean Bean, with long hair) is virtuosic, rhythmic and full of humor. The audience brought the ensemble back for multiple encores, but alas, no encore.

The JACK Quartet performs again on 12/2 at 5:00 p.m. in the Sheafer Lab Theater. For details, see the sidebar.