The JACK Quartet Featured at La Jolla’s Birch Aquarium

The JACK Quartet gave a remarkable concert Monday in a joint presentation by UC San Diego’s ArtPower and Art of Elan. The presenters had scheduled this concert for The Loft on the UCSD campus, but demonstrations on campus cast doubt on the wisdom of those plans, so arrangements were quickly made to present JACK at the nearby Birch Aquarium.

The JACK Quartet in the Birch Aquarium’s Sheila Marie Davis Galleria [Photo(c.) Gary Payne]

Based in New York City, the JACK Quartet–violinists Austin Wulliman and Christopher Otto, violist John Pickford Richards and cellist Jay Campbell– is the Quartet in Residence at the Mannes School of Music and has established its reputation as one of contemporary music’s indispensable performing ensembles. When most touring string quartets offer a contemporary work on their program, it is almost always carefully nestled between two larger works from the standard repertory. At the Birch Aquarium, however, JACK played three works written in the 21st century, complemented by two works from the middle of the last century that proved more challenging than the recent compositions.

The JACK Quartet opened with a recently completed composition by its first violinist Austin Wullimam, “Dave’s Hocket: for Guillaume and Arvo,” a clever homage to the 14th-century French composer Guillaume de Machaut and the contemporary Estonian Arvo Pärt. Using musical materials from these two composers, Wulliman has fashioned a rich sonic tapestry of sustained, slowly moving clusters deftly illuminated by the many rich colors each instrument of the quartet is able to produce.

Two of JACK’s offerings, Caroline Shaw’s “Entr’acte” and Gabriella Smith’s “Carrot Revolution” were played in a concert by the Miró Quartet for La Jolla SummerFest in 2019. It was rewarding to hear these bold pieces again on the same program, each filled with clever ideas and a variety of extended musical techniques. Shaw frequently calls for a pair of players to bow several measures silently, then unexpectedly make them blossom into rich timbres, while Smith unleashed occasional bouts of smirking cacophony from percussive taps on the body of each instrument and instructing the bows to scrape and attack the strings, rather than coaxing the expected mellifluous sonorities. Shaw stressed thematic unity, with motifs returning again and again in contrasting voicings, while Smith celebrated inventive contrast and juxtaposition.

(l. to r.) Austin Wulliman, Christopher Otto, John Pickford Richards & Jay Campbell [photo (c.) Gary Payne]

Ruth Crawford Seeger’s bold, Expressionist String Quartet from 1931 comes across as an avalanche of darting independent themes, three tightly structured movements of meticulously charted atonal counterpoint as daring as anything written by the members of the Second Viennese School between the two Great Wars of the last century. San Diego’s Hausmann Quartet gave a splendid account of Seeger’s 1931 String Quartet in one of its Haydn Voyage Concerts in February of 2018, and it was thrilling to experience this work again on the JACK Quartet program.

“Structures” by Morton Feldman, a minimalist gem written in 1951 long before the birth of the Minimalist movement, is a complex but ineffably delicate web of quiet, discrete motifs that rarely exceed the dynamic level of mezzo-piano.  The JACK Quartet gave an eloquent, almost reverent, account of this puzzling yet haunting work.

This concert was presented jointly by Art of Elan and UC San Diego’s ArtPower on May 6, 2024, at La Jolla’s Birch Aquarium.


  1. Bill Griswold on May 11, 2024 at 7:54 pm

    Thank you for making it possible to hear this excellent concert

  2. Bill Griswold on May 11, 2024 at 7:55 pm

    Thank you for sendingthislink

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