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September 15, 2011

Mobtown Modern presents brilliant JACK Quartet in all-Xenakis program

The first cool thing about Wednesday night's season-opening presentation by Mobtown Modern was the size of the audience, easily the largest crowd yet for this intrepid organization devoted to cutting-edge music.

Quite unscientifically, I'd put the number at a couple hundred or so.

Before you dismiss that as no big deal, just consider the program -- the complete string quartets of Iannis Xenakis.

Is there a major Xenakis following in Baltimore? Or is it more that there's a sizable fan base for the featured group, the much-acclaimed JACK Quartet?

Either way, I was surprised by the turnout, impressed by the enthusiastic response of the crowd to each performance.

The second cool thing was ...

the venue, one being used for the first time by Mobtown Modern.

The 2640 Space, more typically associated with rock or jazz events, started life as a church. Its architectural appeal is considerable, even if the walls and arches look a bit on the weathered side (OK, very weathered). And the acoustics proved quite lively for the un-amplified concert.

Ultimately, the coolest thing, of course, was the music. Xenakis wrote exceptionally complex works; mathematical calculations played a part in many of them. The quartets, spanning the years 1962 to 1994 (the composer died in 2001), are rich in muscular dissonance and vivid sonic effects.

Each quartet is held together by its own firm structural integrity (Xenakis studied architecture early on), and the JACK ensemble dug into the scores with a keen understanding of the distinctive shapes and contours.

No technical challenge seemed to give the musicians the slightest pause. Just hearing such fearless, tight playing was a valuable experience. But these guys aren't just about showing off skills of articulation; they make music. And they found in the Xenakis quartets remarkable avenues for expressive impact.

The driving blocks of thick chords in "Tetora," for example, emerged with tremendous energy.

The oldest of the works, "ST-4/1, 080262," received a particularly brilliant performance, where the eerie slithering up and down strings and siren-like wails took on deeply poetic qualities; where a long, descending cello line produced a mesmerizing effect; and where silences, too, communicated strongly.

A great start for Mobtown Modern's new season of adventure.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:39 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes


Hello Tim,
I appreciate your work on classical music.
Baltimore has a long history of "classical music." It is a different genre. I am dating myself by telling you the historical role that "Balmere"played in music during the 1950's. This tradition, along with the dance moves that originated here like The Madison, are being kept alive by some young people in our town. I just sent you the link for The Hop:!/event.php?eid=168786959867357 via your Twitter account.
A few years back, my wife and I met one of these young people at Roy's while dining. He had started "Save Your Soul," with a lot of work and a little money. It was being held at the Lithuanian Hall. As it grew, it attrated people of all ages like my wife and me, and always John Waters. The young man is Paul Lebel. Last year, he gave up his job and loaned out Save Your Soul, while he biked across America doing his idea of The goal was to raise money to buy bicycles for the children of our fallen and wounded troops. This he has done and I understand more bicycles will be given to the children of Baltimore soon. The agreement on Save Your Soul was based on a "hand-shake." When he recently returned to town, he found out the hard way what a hand-shake is worth today. So, he has started The Hop. This is a fine young lad, both my wife and I think. Tim, there is a good story here and some really good music. So get out your dancing shoes and grab your favorite flame and dance. It is fun.

Yes, it was an amazing concert/event! I think that there is a huge coterie of Xenakis fans in Baltimore. This was the rare event where the audience brought together performance students from Peabody and luminaries from the avant-improvisation scene. Kudos to Mobtown Modern and the JACK!
- David

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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