Trapani’s musical islands are joined in Spektral Quartet program

Sun May 05, 2019 at 12:08 pm

By John Y. Lawrence

Spektral Quartet performed Saturday night at University of Chicago’s International House. Photo: Daniel Kullman

The audience went island-hopping around the world with the Spektral Quartet Saturday night, at the University of Chicago’s International House.

The event was a concert titled “Enchanted Islands: A Travelogue.” The chamber group performed Books I and II of Isolario: Book of Known Islands—a musical atlas of sorts composed by Christopher Trapani—with Book II receiving its world premiere. 

This was preceded by Schubert’s “Rosamunde” quartet. (Rosamunde is set on Cyprus, you see.) 

The Schubert performance was surprisingly light-footed even in the darkest passages. In the opening bars Clara Lyon (playing first violin) clipped the little phrases of the main theme short, exaggerating the rests between them. Then, when the theme returned in the major, Lyon lengthened the final notes, as if the melody had relaxed a bit—a quirky yet effective interpretive touch.

Much less effective was how Spektral handled the quivering figure in the viola and cello, which runs throughout the movement. In the best performances, there is something unsettling about this figure—trouble brewing underneath the placid waters. The quartet seemed to take it at face value, and its reappearance in the development, over particularly eerie harmonies from Schubert, was oddly tensionless.

The last two movements came off best. Cellist Russell Rolen provided a foreboding opening to the minuet, whose main body the quartet played with a lilt akin to a Viennese waltz. The finale’s delicacy of texture suited the group’s gentle approach. 

Eschewing program notes, Spektral invited Trapani to explain Isolario to the audience, with violist Doyle Ambrust acting as interviewer.

Each of the two Books is made up of six or seven short movements—two or three minutes on average. Each movement depicts a different island that Trapani visited, and mixes electronic sounds (provided by Max Bruckert manning the computers) and live playing from the quartet.

The sounds playing through the speakers included manipulated field recordings that Trapani made on the islands. In Book II, this included shaking cowbells in “Mamoiada” (in Sardinia) and the cries of peanut sellers in “San Lazaro” (in Cuba).

The danger of such an arrangement is that the recorded sound would serve as just a backdrop to the quartet; or worse, that the two would be disconnected. 

But Trapani is a superb craftsman. He wove together the analog and the electronic so seamlessly that it was hard to tell which sounds were coming from the quartet on stage, and which from the speakers.

This integration is a testament not only to Trapani’s skill in melding the two media, but also to Spektral’s precision of playing. “Kalymnos” from Book I included the din of dynamite blasts from an Easter celebration, with Spektral having to land their notes together with the explosions. “Baracoa” from Book II featured a recording of a mechanical organ, with which the quartet had to remain in tightly coordinated dialogue.

“Gavdos,” which opens Book I, was particularly stunning in this respect. Each pizzicato, snapping back against the wood of the instruments, was combined with recorded effects to make it sound as if it was kicking up sand into the wind. In “Inishmore,” intermittent snatches from an Irish fiddle are heard via recording. But over the course of the movement, Maeve Feinberg (now on first violin) eventually transformed her instrument into a fiddle, while Armbrust and Rolen turned theirs into drums.

Most of the movements were explorations of an idea or texture, rather than a linear progression. This made them perfect for their miniature length. You had time to be absorbed into their world, but before you could tire of it, you journeyed on to the next one.

This made the rare extended solo lines particularly special moments. “Diafani,” opening Book II, features a plaintive melody for viola over the sounds of the sea, which Armbrust played with bittersweet tone.

The only flaw is that Trapani seems  somewhat addicted to portamento. Spektral spent a lot of time sliding around. Sometimes this was put to good use, such as in vividly portraying the flight and the cries of a flock of pelicans in “Grand Isle” in Book I. It is perhaps a misfortune of playing all thirteen movements at once that this technique grew less special as it reappeared in Book II to depict the currents of the East River in “Hellgate” and the decaying mosaics of a church in “Ayios Philon.”

But that is a tiny fault in what is otherwise a major contribution to the contemporary chamber literature. There was talk Saturday of Trapani adding further books in future. Let us hope that he does.

Spektral Quartet closes their season with a talent show at The Hideout 8:30 pm. June 15.

Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment