With a new violinist, Spektral Quartet still at the top of their game 

Sun Jan 29, 2017 at 1:52 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

The Spektral Quartet performed Friday night at UC's Fulton Recital Hall. Photo: Joe Mazza
The Spektral Quartet performed Friday night at UC’s Fulton Recital Hall. Photo: Joe Mazza

The Spektral Quartet is an ensemble in transition again.

In 2014 violinist Clara Lyon replaced founding member Aurelien Pederzoli. Two months ago it was announced that Maeve Feinberg would succeed the group’s other violinist Austin Wulliman, who departed to join JACK Quartet in New York.

Spektral Quartet’s concert Friday night at Fulton Recital Hall was the first local appearance of the new lineup and offered a timely opportunity to check in on the venturesome Chicago-based ensemble’s current artistic health. The event attracted such an overflow crowd to the intimate venue on the University of Chicago campus that an extended pause had to be taken after the concert began so extra chairs could be brought out for additional seating.

A current Grammy nominee for their “Serious Business” recording, Spektral offered a punning program titled “Finger on the Pulse,” with three works that feature, to greater or lesser degrees, pizzicato.

Music of Beethoven led off with his “Harp” Quartet in E flat major, Op. 74. The quartet reflects the composer’s transitional middle period, with its teasing alternation of a lyrical theme and pizzicatos (hence the “harp” designation by his publisher), while the intense scherzo almost seems a cousin of that in the Fifth Symphony. Beethoven makes a stylistic retreat of sorts in the final movement with its more Classically ordered theme and variations.

Spektral’s playing in the Adagio felt a bit literal and could have used greater expressive nuance. But for the most part the ensemble brought their customary polish and virtuosity to this music. Violinist Lyon has been a terrific addition to the group and her sweet tone and agile playing were consistent assets. The Scherzo went with bumptious energy and the finale variations were deftly characterized, with the throwaway punchline delivered on point.

Feinberg, the new addition, generally fit in well with Lyon and founding violist Doyle Armbrust and cellist Russell Rolen, playing with equal alacrity and listening to her new colleagues closely.

But, as is often the case for new string quartet members, Feinberg’s violin sounded too reticent and at times even inaudible, in the Beethoven and throughout the concert. The young violinist needs to play out more to better match her big-dog colleagues. No doubt she and the group will iron out balancing issues and make the necessary adjustments with further performances.

Dai Fujikura’s String Quartet No. 1 was the evening’s centerpiece, reflecting Spektral’s core concentration on contemporary music.

Born in Osaka and long resident in England, the Japanese composer is astoundingly prolific and has written in every genre. His First String Quartet, titled “Another Place” was written in 2005 and packs a lot of activity into a single movement of just ten minutes.

The music features jagged fragments of violent, hard-snapped pizzicatos, and an extended agitated cello solo, played with searing intensity by Rolen. Fujikura calls for the use of mutes, which lends a ghostly, disorienting effect to the string sonorities. At one point the players are called upon to play with great force and–with the mutes restraining their instruments’ volume–the effect is created of an titanic, fruitless struggle.

This is bold and compelling music, given committed, full-metal advocacy by the Spektral Quartet, and makes one want to hear more of Fujikura’s oeuvre.

Violist Armbrust introduced Ravel’s String Quartet by saying that no matter how many times he and his colleagues perform the work it always feels amazingly fresh to them.

That quality was certainly manifest in the ensuing performance. One tends to associate Spektral with demanding, often knotty contemporary works that call for steel-edged bravura. But the gentle, refined, and idiomatic performance of Ravel’s quartet showed their versatility nicely as well.

The players brought Gallic elegance and a limpid, impressionistic quality to the opening Allegro. The ensuing pizzicatos of the Assez vif were tossed off with delightful piquancy and apt caprice.

Led by Lyon’s ingratiating tone, the Spektral players judged the ebb and flow of the slow movement with great skill, conveying the sense of hazy, somewhat melancholy nostalgia with sensitively shaded playing.

Perhaps the musicians’ full-frontal assault on the finale felt a bit over-aggressive and out of period in this music, but the fire and brilliance of the playing made an undeniably exciting finish to the concert.

The program will be repeated 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Fermi Lab in Warrenville. spektralquartet.com

Posted in Performances

One Response to “With a new violinist, Spektral Quartet still at the top of their game ”

  1. Posted Jan 30, 2017 at 9:52 am by Tod Verklärung

    On Saturday, March 11, the Spectral Quartet is scheduled to perform the Morton Feldman String Quartet #2. This is likely a once-in-a-lifetime event given the sheer length of the piece (in the neighborhood of six hours). The program begins at 6:00pm at the Museum of Contemporary Art. I am not affiliated with the group or the venue, but am looking forward to it.

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