Spektral Quartet serves up a bracing season sampler

Thu Aug 30, 2012 at 3:20 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

The Spektral Quartet performed Wednesday night at The Empty Bottle.

The kids are all right. And that’s encouraging news for anyone concerned about the future of classical music, especially the contemporary kind, in Chicago.

Wednesday night the talented young Spektral Quartet (violinists Aurelien Pederzoli and Austin Wulliman, violist Doyle Armbrust and cellist Russell Rolen) offered a sampler of their 2012-13 season. That they chose to do it in the attractively grungy Empty Bottle, a popular Ukrainian Village night spot, rather than a traditional concert hall was notable. That the sampler included single movements from quartets by Haydn, Mozart, Verdi, Beethoven and Hugo Wolf along with intriguing short works by Chicago-based composers Daniel Dehaan, Jenna Lyle, Hans Thomalla and Chris Fisher-Lochhead was equally unusual. That the large audience was as young and revved up for the evening as any fans of Lupe Fiasco or Jay-Z was more striking still.

Of course, the Spektral Quartet and its fans aren’t really kids. This is the ensemble’s third season preview at the Bottle and next season they become ensemble-in-residence at the University of Chicago. Their audience was mainly a post-graduate crowd, fans well on the way to their own careers in music or elsewhere. But while rock artists over 40 are considered geezers, in the classical music world, anybody under 40 is a youngster. The youthful vibe in the Empty Bottle–the atmosphere of listeners open to anything and performers ready to play the bejesus out of every piece on the program–was exhilarating.

During its coming season, Spektral will perform works by such well-established contemporary composers as Mark-Anthony Turnage and Elliott Carter along with more standard classical fare. But the Chicago composers on their sampler concert offered a bracing peek at less familiar voices.

Dehaan’s Sterile Containment and Thomalla’s Albumblatt were beautifully crafted studies in minimalism. In Dehaan’s piece, the players created a low, relentless hum like the sound of distant traffic.  But we never lost the thread of four distinctive instrumental voices. As the music swayed heavily, a melody seemed to be struggling to the surface. Its fragments coalesced into a quietly rhapsodic, melancholy song before melting away again.

In Albumblatt, the quartet’s strongly etched scales conjured images of planes approaching takeoff or coming in for a landing. Amid such powerful, constant movement, the hint of simple choral tune provided a moment of poignant calm.

Lyle’s Inkblot used the amplified beat of Wulliman’s heart as its animating rhythm. Again that recurring pulse, Lyle sang, hissed and whispered tiny fragments from a poet by Virginia Konchan. The interplay between her outbursts and the jagged strings evoked a sense of inner demons. In contrast, Fisher Lochhead’s slightly dissonant but richly colored setting of James Blake’s I Never Learnt to Share had a robust energy.

In the evening’s more traditional fare, the Spektral Quartet demonstrated the cohesiveness we expect from an expert ensemble. In the crazy-fast moto perpetuo of the final movement of Beethoven’s Op. 59, No. 3, the foursome gleefully drove one another to increasingly reckless flights. In Hugo Wolf’s brief Italian Serenade, the composer’s dance rhythms and lyrical melodies bounced by like a blithe conversation among close friends.

This was concert-going at its informal best—gifted performers, a lively, attentive audience, a relaxed setting and the chance to enjoy a beer or a glass of wine along with the music.  Expect more of it from the Unfamiliar Music Series that Spektral will oversee this season at the Empty Bottle. Among the lineup are Ensemble dal niente and the Q String Quartet. Thanks to its young pied pipers, Chicago’s new music scene has never seemed more vibrant.

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