Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Colorful Art Music of Chicago's Spektral Quartet

While we love to proclaim that art should not be imprisoned within galleries, concert halls, or other rooms of some particular formality, such surroundings are usually excellent places in which to watch and listen. Elgin's Side Street Studio Arts Gallery was an ideal setting for an autumn evening of pure art music performed by the Spektral Quartet.

But the macabre artworks of Side Street's "Something Wicked" exhibit — and the music itself — may have been the only formal elements of this gathering. The musicians blended in with the casual Tuesday night crowd, and friendly greetings were offered by Sara Sitzer, co-artistic director for "Chamber Music on the Fox," organizers of this, the first in a series of chamber music events planned for Elgin venues.

For the next two hours, the artists of Spektral Quartet delivered one amazing performance after another, challenging our notions of what to expect from a string quartet, and pushing the boundaries of what's musically possible.

Aptly named "The Sampler Pack" because of its variety, the nine-part program spanned almost 200 years of music history, and included works ranging in length from five seconds to more than ten minutes, punctuated by impromptu remarks from the musicians themselves. 

Violinists Clara Lyon and J. Austin Wulliman
In contemporary pieces from Philip Glass and Bernard Rands, the ensemble tightly synchronized their body language and breathing, displaying what violinist J. Austin Wulliman later described as a "group mind" that can only be formed after innumerable hours of rehearsal together. Violinist Clara Lyon, the newest member, meshed seamlessly in this, her first appearance with Spektral.

Verses from the late American poet Russell Edson served as lyrics for two parts of a suite by contemporary Chicago composer David Reminick, whose score calls for simultaneous singing, playing and, arguably, musical movement. There may be many great musicians in Chicago, but few are asked to sing and dance while playing passages of such rhythmic and melodic complexity.

For the Spektrals, Art meets Life in a project called "Mobile Miniatures," a commissioned collection of dozens of complete scores by different composers, of suitable length for cell phone ringtones. But the playful concept belies the sophistication of this music, and the skill and sensitivity with which it was played.

Violist Doyle Armbrust and cellist Russell Rolen
Taken from the classic end of the spectrum, selections from Beethoven, Dvorak and Stravinsky amply demonstrate the depth of talent and experience of this quartet. Passages played as expressively as any concert master by violist Doyle Armbrust and cellist Russell Rolen moved us inwardly with intimate phrasings that were never intended for a full orchestra.

Great art challenges us and changes us. Like something conceived by Edgar Allan Poe, whose portraits were displayed on the walls of the gallery, this concert took us to places where music has no pulse, where ugly noises and long silences are strangely beautiful, and our subconscious becomes conscious.

Evocative language and imagery are powerful objects, but it's live performances of such superb quality and authenticity that create a truly transcendent experience. And when this quartet plays, the specter is real.

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