Spektral Quartet plays it for laughs at the Logan Center

Mon Feb 01, 2016 at 12:12 pm

By John Y. Lawrence

The title of Spektral Quartet’s new album, Serious Business, is an ironic one. The album is an exploration of four works displaying  musical humor: three written expressly for the quartet in 2014 and 2015, one by Haydn written over two centuries ago. This impish spirit—subversive rather than laugh-out-loud funny (the exception being when they asked every member of the audience to sit simultaneously on whoopee cushions)—pervaded the album release concert, which was held Sunday afternoon at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago.

The concert opened with Sky Macklay’s Many Many Cadences. The piece’s conceit is that it is made entirely of endings, like a gymnastics routine consisting only of landings.

The premise wore thin quickly. By a couple of seconds in, it was impossible to perceive the “cadential” flavor of the motives, as their constant and rapid repetition made them into an ostinato like any other. But the tricky rhythms—which the Spektral Quartet played with impressive precision—gave the piece an athletic appeal.

Chris Fisher-Lochhead’s Hack is inspired by comedy in a very different way. It is a series of musical transcriptions of excerpts of standup routines. The melody for each movement duplicates exactly the timing and contour of a different clip from a standup routine, by such comedians as Rodney Dangerfield and George Carlin. To demonstrate the precision of this transcription, the quartet showed a film clip of their performance of the Dave Chappelle movement overlaid on the exact Chappelle excerpt it was modeled on.

This could have been mere gimmickry, but Fisher-Lochhead used his transcription method to produce music that is truly speechlike. And even more importantly, he captured the individual character of the various comedians in his music, all of which the quartet conveyed well. There were spiritual qualities in the portrait of Richard Pryor, and hints of a fiddle reel in the music depicting Ms. Pat.

Excerpts from David Reminick’s The Ancestral Mousetrap featured on both halves of the program. And as an encore, the quartet showed a suitably absurdist music video of the fifth movement.

The piece sets a series of very macabre poems by the late Russell Edson. “Sets” is the right word here, as the poems are sung—by the members of the quartet, the vocal part passed between them as they play.

The vocal melodies are well integrated into the spiky textures of the string parts. If the music has a fault, it’s that its insistent darkness misses the wry detachment of Edson’s originals. But there is no doubt that each movement is a well-crafted piece of musical storytelling.  

The Spektral Quartet’s playing of the piece was so committed and vigorous that cellist Russell Rolen busted a string in the fourth movement, and they had to start again.

The Classical concert-mate of these contemporary composers was Joseph Haydn, represented by the finale from his String Quartet Op. 33, no. 2, known as “The Joke”, due to the many false endings planted in its coda. Here the quartet underplayed this movement. (Perhaps deliberately, to provide a foil for the rest of the program?) The joke coda came off well, but the rest of the movement was laid back, with little contrast.  

There were two pieces on the program not on the album. One was Stravinsky’s Concertino. The quartet made an excellent case for this piece becoming part of the standard chamber repertoire, playing with pungent accents and much rhythmic vitality.

The other non-album piece was Beethoven’s “Grosse Fuge”—not generally considered comic fare. It is tempting on a program full of modern music to play the Grosse Fuge as a proto-modernist piece, mechanistic and full of rage.  

Instead, the quartet’s focus was on the songfulness of the lyric passages and the dance-like lilt of the dotted rhythms—two qualities often absent in most performances of the work, and beautifully highlighted in their rendition.

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