It takes cultural cojones to make the opening classical concert at a brand-new performing arts venue a string quartet recital. Especially if it features three contemporary composers whose names (Haas, Rosser, Radulescu) are far from familiar, even to seasoned chamber music aficionados.
The MAC's boldness in doing just that was rewarded with a stunning, world-class performance by the New York based JACK Quartet.
Quartet No. 5 (2007) by Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas opens the concert. It requires radical usage of the space available in the MAC's smaller, 120-seat studio theatre. The two violinists take up a standing position stage left and right, opposite one another. The cellist is seated on a small balcony on the back wall above them, while the violist stands on the highest step of the raked audience seating area.
Unconventional, but what emerges is a mesmerising account of Haas's 15-minute movement. The four players are uncannily precise in picking off their cues from one another, despite the considerable distance between them.
Technically the work deploys a wide variety of effects, from quivering tremolandos at its outset, through weird spiccato plinkings and spidery glissandos sliding up and down the neck of the instruments. It concludes with eerie high harmonics on the violins.
The spatial separation of the four players creates an expanded sonic landscape of scarred, post-apocalyptic barrenness. Expectant silences and generally restrained dynamics rivet the attention. The JACK Quartet's realisation of Haas's writing is, simply, superlative.
Their performance of Horatiu Radulescu's Fifth Quartet is if anything even more impressive. The piece is twice as long as Haas's, and requires immense reserves of stamina, concentration and virtuosity to execute properly.
In the JACK Quartet's traversal, Radulescu's work emerges as totally compelling. It lives up to its subtitle 'before the universe was born'. The composer music is cosmic and otherworldly, weird and numinous in its probing of the dark past and its existential mysteries.
12 of the 16 strings available on the quartet's four instruments are retuned to enable a series of open harmonics to be sounded by the players. The wash of layered textures that results, one fluid ripple slithering over another in a wave-like, lapping motion, is magical.
At times it's difficult to tell where exactly particular sounds are coming from. The various strands of melody are expertly enmeshed together, floating disembodied and apparently independent of the individual players.
It's a masterly interpretation, and the JACK Quartet's recording of Radulescu's work should be urgently sought out when it's released later in 2012.
Between these two pieces is the world premiere of Belfast-based composer Peter Rosser's String Quartet No.2. The work is based on a set of three preludes and fugues, deconstructed and reassembled in more fragmentary, dislocated fashion. It teems and buckles with local incident, splashing shapes and figurations across the music's busy surfaces like the sonic equivalent of a Jackson Pollock drip-painting.
The JACK Quartet play the new work impeccably: Rosser could scarcely have wished for a better, more authoritative first performance.
All told, this concert marks out the JACK Quartet as something truly special. They are committed to exploring the outer limits of what the string quartet is capable of expressing, and are able to make allegedly 'difficult' music seem urgently relevant and necessary.
Bringing the group to Belfast was an early feather in the MAC's classical cap. Let's hope the new venue continues to programme this innovatively far into the future.