Spektral Quartet bids farewell with a remarkable score at the Planetarium

Thu Mar 31, 2022 at 12:42 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

The Spektral Quartet performed Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Enigma at the Adler Planetarium’s Grainger Sky Theater on Wednesday. Photo: Alannah Spencer

To say much has happened since the Spektral Quartet announced its collaboration with composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir in the fall of 2019 would be an understatement. That October the quartet offered an informal private performance of Thorvaldsdottir’s Enigma at the Adler Planetarium, with the composer on hand, where they planned to perform the work with an accompanying video in 2020.

The Covid-19 pandemic put that ambitious project on ice. In the meantime Spektral performed Enigma elsewhere sans film and released a recording of the work on the Sono Luminus label last year.

Now, 2-1/2 years later than expected, the Spektral Quartet is finally presenting Enigma in the form as originally conceived. There will be four performances of the work April 7 and 8—two nightly—at the Planetarium with Sigurður Guðjónsson’s video simultaneously projected in the 360-degree immersion of the Grainger Sky Theater.

On a rain-soaked Wednesday afternoon the quartet presented a press preview, performing Enigma live with the Guðjónsson vid at the Planetarium. And while the setting and visuals are indeed striking, what most impressed was Thorvaldsdottir’s remarkable score.

Cast in three movements running 28 minutes, Enigma inhabits the same world as Thorvaldsdottir’s works for orchestra. There is an austerity and Northern feel to this music, in which one can feel a kinship at times with Sibelius. The bleak expanses and rugged, black rock formations of her native Iceland also seem manifest.

Anna Thorvaldsdottir. Photo: Saga Sigurdardottir

Yet while ostensibly inspired in part by the 2017 solar eclipse, the music is neither celestial soundtrack nor musical travelogue. It is epic and deep—mysterious, often unsettling yet elevated and moving in its austere beauty.

The fact that the Spektral Quartet is disbanding at the end of this season (their final Chicago event will be June 12) lent an undeniably elegiac cast to Wednesday’s rainy-day preview.

Even with faint echos of Sibelius and Bartok, Enigma, a Spektral commission, is a strongly individual work cast with a 21st-century edge. The music often sounds like electronics are employed but Enigma is almost entirely acoustic—a testament to the bracing originality of Thorvaldsdottir’s writing in her debut work for string quartet.

A mechanistic low rumbling rises out of the depths to begin the opening movement. The effect is of a rugged sonic landscape—rustling and scraping, col legno tapping and other effects.These unsettling sounds are set against the solace of a long, almost hymn-like rising motif, which provides balm amid the desolate terrain. 

The middle movement—the shortest of the three—begins in a kind of macabre scherzo with skittering bows and eerie voice-like effects. The rising theme returns, consolatory and with an unearthly beauty, the composer’s lyrical phrases imbued with a subdued longing.

Scalar figures set off the opening of the final movement, in which the scrunchy noises and  percussive bow effects multiply and accelerate. A viola solo provides a hopeful small voice in the wilderness, joined by violins, as the tempo slows down and the music quiets to the mystery and scraping effects with which it began. There is a sense of quiet strength and resolution at the end of this journey in music that, despite its edgy surface and forbidding aspects, comes from a deep well of feeling.

Even by their standard, the Spektral Quartet’s Wednesday performance of Enigma was extraordinary—rendered with laser-like precision, a vast range of color and dynamics and all the sonic effects registering clearly and effectively.

Fears that Sigurður Guðjónsson’s in-the-round video might detract from the music proved unfounded. The immersive 360-degree visuals paint a slowly mutating, black-and-white celestial milky way galaxy. It offers a simpatico if nonessential visual backdrop, complementing Thorvaldsdottir’s music without upstaging it.

But despite the elaborate trappings and multimedia presentation, Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s music is the main attraction. Spektral hasn’t always been discerning in its choices of composers to champion but their Thorvaldsdottir commission is a success across the board.

Enigma is a contemporary masterpiece and in the hands of the Spektral Quartet—violinists Theo Espy and Clara Leon, violist Doyle Armbrust and cellist Russell Rolen—their performance is an enormously compelling journey.

The Spektral Quartet performs Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Enigma 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. April 7 and 8 at the Adler Planetarium. spektralquartet.com/enigma

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