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.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Agnew's Cello Prevails with Elgin Symphony

Not only the birds, but also the wind, the woods and even the audience added their vocalizations to "Nature's Soundscapes," presented by the Elgin Symphony Orchestra with Resident Conductor Stephen Squires, Saturday night at the Hemmens.

Ottorino Respighi's Gli Uccelli (The Birds, 1928) aptly set the tone with a suite of five short baroque-inspired movements named after the birds whose songs and sounds were imitated throughout. The ESO woodwinds gave brilliant voice to the characterizations (written a bit too persuasively in some places), accompanied by a studious and restrained orchestra.

With this first performance by the ESO, The Birds is a pleasant, listenable and welcome addition, which one patron described as "just beautiful ... so pretty."

The trees, lakes and especially the birds of Finland were loved by Jean Sibelius, whose Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Major was commissioned in honor of his 50th birthday, now an annual national holiday.

The work is important more for its evolution of musical structure than for its style, which adds a modern polish to essentially traditional language. At Squires' insistent direction, the orchestra's sound was quite majestic on the musical hilltops, though introverted at times among the many quiet ponds and frozen lakes of the symphony's three movements.

The wintery images were beautiful, if reserved, and the Hemmens audience responded with their own exercise of Nordic self-control.

Cellist Matthew Agnew performs with Elgin Symphony Orchestra, Stephen Squires, conductor.

The highlight of this program was the Concerto in C Major for Violoncello (ca. 1765) by Franz Josef Haydn, featuring ESO principal cellist Matthew Agnew. At every concert we are reminded of the depth of talent in Elgin's orchestra, but Agnew's performance raises the appreciation to a new level.

Holding his instrument close, Mr. Agnew gave the classic melodies graceful and expressive detail, shifting through octaves with precision and velvety consistency of tone. In the high register, his skill was matched with nuances of shape and timing that any virtuoso would envy.

Throughout his captivating solo passages and cadenzas, the ensemble kept a delicate balance, playing with a deep affection, not merely deep respect.

The audience leapt to its feet with shouts of ecstatic admiration, and demanded three curtain calls for Agnew and Squires, a reception rarely given to any performance. ESO listeners recognize quality when they hear it, and are fortunate to find it every month on a stage so close to home.