Music Review

Jack Quartet, IRCAM prove electric company at ICA

The concert mounted at the Institute of Contemporary Art on Friday night was a special occasion, and felt like one. It wasn’t just the intersection of the Jack Quartet, a skillful ensemble whose consistent advocacy for modern composers is infectious, with associates from IRCAM, the Parisian hotbed of electroacoustic invention. It wasn’t just the rare chance to hear a major work by Jonathan Harvey, an English visionary who died in 2012. And it wasn’t just the privilege to be among the first to hear a substantial new piece by Chaya Czernowin, a profoundly gifted Israeli composer and a much-admired Harvard professor.

What made Friday a night to remember was all of those things converging in the presence of a sizable, buzzy throng and hosted in an acoustically amenable, visually splendid space. Hot on the heels of a triumphant performance by Sound Icon in the same room on Thursday, the concert concluded a busy weeklong IRCAM residency at Boston University.


The pieces that comprised Friday’s program — Harvey’s String Quartet No. 4, composed for the Arditti Quartet (as were Harvey’s three previous quartets) in 2003, and Czernowin’s “Hidden,” completed in 2014 and dedicated to the Jack Quartet, which gave its premiere that year — combined string writing of comprehensive precision with computer-derived electronics, designed for Harvey by Gilbert Nuono, and for Czernowin by Carlo Laurenzi.

Both conjured vivid impressions of dislocation. Harvey’s flecks and splinters flitted around the room, suggesting flight and dance; Czernowin’s immersive fields evoked tidal pull. Both were technically formidable, but not forbidding; I was struck repeatedly by how clearly these works spoke, without pandering — unless you felt the ravishing conclusion of Harvey’s quartet, an English lark ascending against a radiant dawn rendered by Ravel, played to the cheap seats.

Not this listener, who heard in those luscious bars a transcendence achieved through repeated cycles of laborious exploration, each begun with whispers and murmurs that were elaborated, refracted, and sent soaring. That aspect of labor was underscored inadvertently here when the violinist Ari Streisfeld, visibly dissatisfied with something he was hearing, halted the performance to retune. Interruption notwithstanding, the quartet provided an account to savor.


Unlike Harvey’s eventful pilgrim’s progress, Czernowin in “Hidden” fashioned a slow cinematic pan across disparate ecologies. Her brief program note cites “an underwater, submerged landscape of rocks,” and that impression certainly was among those available.

But in her intricate mix of live string gestures and dense electronics, I reckoned I heard Webern miniatures played at the far end of the Basilica Cistern; a gusty rainstorm traversing a plain; and an imposing glacier violently calving icebergs. Those impressions, vivid and specific even if unintended, attest to the imaginative potency of Czernowin’s language, and to the scintillating advocacy of Jack and its IRCAM colleagues, Jérémie Henrot and Serge Lemouton.


At Institute of Contemporary Art, April 29

Steve Smith can be reached at steven.smith@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nightafternight.