Spektral Quartet delivers an unforgettable “Black Angels”

Thu May 24, 2012 at 3:55 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

The Spektral Quartet performed George Crumb’s “Black Angels” Wednesday night as part of its “Theatre of War” program.

The Spektral Quartet may be the best-kept secret on Chicago’s classical scene.

Now closing its second season, the young envelope-pushing string quartet drew a packed house Wednesday night at the Chopin Theater for “Theatre of War” — a powerful mixed-media evening that culminated in a shattering performance of George Crumb’s Black Angels. The program will be repeated tonight and is not an event to miss.

The Spektral Quartet (violinists Austin Wulliman and Aurelien Pederzoli, violist Doyle Armbrust and cellist Russell Rolen) is clearly carving out a niche with the city’s younger and more adventurous audiences. The Division street venue was populated with a youthful, hipster-ish crowd that other classical presenters would kill to attract. It’s likely most of the non-musicians in attendance were hearing Crumb’s quartet for the first time, and all listened in transfixed silence.

“Theatre of War” is the most ambitious of the Spektral Quartet’s multimedia events to date and proved the most successful, with a tightly packed ninety minutes that seamlessly fused music, film, theater, and poetry in a way many try to do but rarely accomplish effectively.

While not overtly partisan, the program — as voiced by the quartet members at the start of the evening — takes a clear anti-war position. “War does not decide who is right but who is left,” read the large projected quote by George Bernard Shaw that greeted the audience members as they entered the theater.

It would be easy for such a politically charged topic to tip over into preachy agitprop. That it didn’t was due to the well-balanced elements, the committed, intensely focused performances and a sense of earnest dedication that skirted self-righteousness. The program was deeper, more varied and layered than that, examining war’s effects on victims and nature as well as soldiers and the broader society.

The genius of Black Angels is that Crumb’s 1970 string quartet manages to blend political protest and a consolatory spirituality within the composer’s ceaselessly resourceful sound world, creating a gripping yet nondidactic meditation that remains timeless.

In addition to standard bowing, the amplified quartet members are called upon to explore a wide, wide dynamic range, play their instruments high on the bridge like bass viols, strum them like mandolins, bow water glasses and double on gongs.

One is unlikely to experience a more powerful, eloquent and intensely moving performance of Black Angels than that heard Wednesday night at the Chopin Theater. From the jarring opening page of the shrill, shrieking violins (“Night of the Electric Insects”) every strand and tendril of the music was laid bare: the dirge-like ceremony of the high-bowed passages, the violent intensity of the aggressive pages, and the otherworldly serenity of the hushed violin and cello solos. The brick-walled venue offered a surprisingly receptive acoustic and the full, dizzying range of Crumb’s haunting sonic landscape was clearly present. Scrupulously rehearsed and presented, the Spektral Quartet’s remarkable performance of this demanding music delivered one of the musical highlights of the year.

The only other musical selection was Stress Position by Chicago composer Drew Baker. Inspired by the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and the extreme interrogation techniques at Guantanamo Bay, the music is a long, extended crescendo for amplified piano that builds to a thunderous climax.

The programmatic inspiration aside, the buildup of repeated chords at the extreme ends of the piano didn’t allow much room for creative ingenuity but possesses a certain malign hypnotic quality. Lisa Kaplan, pianist of eighth blackbird, showed impressive concentration and stamina in her fearless performance.

After the music, the most effective part of the evening was Blackbird. The dramatized two-person scene depicts an anxious Afghan war veteran in a psychiatrist’s office. Skillfully adapted and directed by Molly Feingold from a short story by Virginia Konchan, the playlet featured a very strong performance by Dustin Valenta as the private with fine support by Jeremy Clark as the banal, well-intentioned psychiatrist.

Three short films by Richard Mosse were interspersed throughout the evening. Gaza Pastoral is almost Kubrick-like in its patient, gliding observation of Palestinian buildings devastated by the Israeli army and a flock of (symbolic?) sheep running hither and yon in search of safety. Killcam jarringly juxtaposes recovering veterans playing an Afghan computer wargame with actual footage of the real thing. The final video, Theatre of War, is the closest the evening came to an overreach, with a muezzin call to prayer over U.S. soldiers sitting around Saddam Hussein’s rubble-strewn palace pool.

Also heard were Hatred and The End and the Beginning, two poems by Wislawa Szymborska read by Don Washington and Linda Gates, respectively.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Thursday. http://spektralquartet.com/events/theatre-of-war/

Posted in Performances

3 Responses to “Spektral Quartet delivers an unforgettable “Black Angels””

  1. Posted May 24, 2012 at 11:40 pm by hans Jensen

    This review is great and I 100% agree with every thing you write. It was a wonderful event and all performances were first rate.
    It is also so important to make us think about war from a different perspective than what is
    being shown in the mass media.

    This event-concert will stay in the mind of the audience for a long time.

  2. Posted May 25, 2012 at 8:06 am by Phil

    Mr. Johnson, I have to take you task for veering a bit close to “self-righteousness” yourself in this review. But first, know I am a huge fan of your reviews, and especially this website; it’s one of the best resources for the Chicago classical-music scene, and your reviews are nearly always honest, nuanced, and based on deep knowledge and experience.

    But your assumption that most of the hipster crowd had heard Crumb’s piece for the first time is a bit snobbish. The work is a classic of post-1950s classical music, and anyone with any musical sophistication will know it and have heard a recording. Admittedly, it’s rarely performed, and I’d have agreed that the performance would have likely been the first live exposure for most of the audience). But even hipsters (of which I’m much too old to consider myself) with any 20th-Century musical knowledge will know this piece.

  3. Posted May 25, 2012 at 8:32 am by Corky Siegel

    The idea of war received a blow and the City of Chicago was just lifted another notch. Thank you and congratulations Spektral Quartet!

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