Up close and plugged in, Spektral Quartet kicks off season in edgy, adventurous fashion

Sun Oct 11, 2015 at 2:38 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

The Spektral Quartet opened their season Saturday night at Curtiss Hall. Photo: Drew Reynolds
The Spektral Quartet opened their season Saturday night at Curtiss Hall. Photo: Drew Reynolds

The Spektral Quartet opened its season Saturday night with a characteristically offbeat presentation of a characteristically envelope-pushing program.

The venue was Curtiss Hall in the Fine Arts Building, a large, dingy rehearsal hall, with a clear if rather dry acoustic. Seating was in the round in the vast rectangular space with the four Spektral members (violinists Clara Lyon and Austin Wulliman, violist Doyle Armbrust, and cellist Russell Rolen) seated in a tight circle. Musician seating was rotated or changed entirely with each work, as was audience seating at one point after intermission. Befitting the “Up Close” theme of the group’s season, the setups at times brought those seated on aisles within inches of the players.

There can be a kind of wine sampling quality to Spektral’s programs of shortish pieces, and one wished that they would offer longer and more complete works. Also while the quartet remains ensemble-in-residence at the University of Chicago their public profile there is rather low considering the title. Spektral deserves a regular local home with a justified concert series, which would help build the audience they deserve, rather than bouncing around between various clubs and venues (a dozen different places in Chicago alone during the current season).

That said, there is no finer string quartet in Chicago than Spektral Quartet. With the superb violinist Lyon joining Spektral a year ago (replacing Aurelien Pederzoli), the group seems to be playing with even greater intensity, cohesion and flexibility. And, as Saturday’s concert demonstrated, while many celebrated new-music ensembles necessarily perform a great deal of not-so-good music, Spektral’s batting average is consistently high, displaying an adroit selection of young and contemporary composers.

That Clara Lyon is a strong addition to an already imposing lineup was evident in the opening performance of Schubert’s Quartetsatz. In the first violin part, she led her colleagues in this taut single movement with a bold yet sweet tone that conveyed Schubert’s gracious lyricism as much as the biting drama, backed by pinpoint articulation and alert ensemble.

Ryan Ingebritsen’s “3 Birds” section from his 4×4 proved especially rewarding. With the composer working the laptop, all four players were amplified, each spread out to the corners of the audience. The viola begins a solo line of bowed long notes, which eventually passes to each violin in turn, then the cello. Spacious yet concentrated, the music grows in amplified, slightly distorted volume as the individual string lines slowly rise, fall and coalesce. There is a haunting quality to this unsettling music with a ghostly wail-like expression, followed by hard pizzicatos and a highly rhythmic section. Ingebritsen’s stark yet compelling music was given first-class advocacy and played with the utmost concentration by the Spektral Quartet members.

Two movements from John Cage’s early String Quartet in Four Parts were performed. The group gave just the right tart homespun touch to “Quietly flowing along,” music which suggests a kind of wrong-note Virgil Thomson. “Slowly Rocking” is more spare and astringent with sudden stabbing accents. Both were effectively played even if the device of asking the audience for the second selection to turn their chairs and face away from the players was rather gimmicky (albeit arguably appropriate for Cage).

Katherine Young’s arrangement of Arthur Russell’s Holding Your Present from You is a fevered hoe-down, launched with vigor by violist Armbrust. The music becomes increasingly jagged and frenzied, with the high harmonics and col legno tapping lending edge to this energized performance.

The players retreated to the far four corners of the room for Lee Weisert’s Polychoron(b). While the amplified, widely spaced lines created striking sonic effect, Weisert’s work proved the sole clinker of the evening. The batting around of exchanged angular lines, swelled notes, and sharp fragments sounded like any number of gestural anonymous pieces written over the last half-century.

Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge closed the evening and proved the perfect coda. Rarely will one hear this music sound as aggressively modern as in Spektral’s commanding, take-no-prisoners performance. Beethoven’s mercurial mood shifts were fully characterized and fluently dispatched, from giocoso geniality to hushed tenderness. Brief moments of edgy violin intonation were forgivable in the context of the Spektral players’ propulsive, full-metal assault on the climactic fugal section.

The program will be repeated 3 p.m. Sunday at Mana Contemporary, 2233 S. Throop. spektralquartet.com.

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