in: Reviews

July 11, 2017

Spektral Challenges and Familiar Affirmation

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Maverick Concerts’ Music Director Alexander Platt, a year-round resident of Chicago, sometimes brings music and musicians from Chicago to Woodstock when he comes east. Such a concert occurred on Saturday, as a Chicago ensemble played two Chicago composers.        

The Spektral Quartet made its Maverick debut with an unusual program consisting of 3/4 unfamiliar music and one repertory item. Augusta Read Thomas’s Chi, a Spektral commission, is based not on the city’s nickname but on the Chinese concept of life force. There was plenty of life force running through this concise work, which engaged immediately engaged from the opening movement, also called “Chi,” written in a kind of jagged ragtime rhythm. Aura unfolded very slow suspensions, Meridians disclosed a lot of slithery parallel motion punctuated by pizzicatos, and Chakras concluded with spectral harmonics. Spektral played it with obvious affection, and Chi said a lot in less than 15 minutes. I’d welcome the chance to hear it again, as well as more from Thomas.

Spektral Quartet (Joe Mazza photo)

Gerard McBurney came from Chicago to hear the world premiere of his Quartet No. 1, “Hildegard,” based on music of Hildegard von Bingen whom McBurney encountered while filming a documentary about her. The Quartet was composed in 1996 and was played in parts by Kronos, for which it was written, but it had never been performed complete in public before. Despite McBurney’s illuminating introductory talk, I had difficulties appreciating this music. It began with a very long slow movement, longer than Thomas’s entire quartet, meditative and almost inert in the upper strings with cello pizzicatos for accent. As in all three movements the Hildegard material was treated so freely I would never have recognized it without prompting, but that’s just description, not a complaint. The animated second movement featured a fragmented theme, echoing and sometimes chaotic. The third and final movement was quite similar to the first, except that here there were accents and sound effects produced by tiny percussion mobiles, barely audible, and wine glasses rubbed against the instruments’ strings. Thirty-five minutes long, it wore out my attention. The audience seemed to like it.

Glass’s String Quartet No. 2, “Company” (originally incidental music for Beckett’s play) came as no surprise. His mindless repetition of uninteresting ideas generally stretch out to interminable length. At least in this work the lengths weren’t interminable, as the four movements lasted only about ten minutes.

At this point we were aware that Spektral was very good at playing challenging new music. How would the ensemble would do with something more familiar? That question was answered convincingly as the program concluded with Ravel’s Quartet in F Major, which began clearly with creamy, rich sound and animated flowing execution and continued from strength to strength. The foursome executed the challenging second movement flawlessly; the third’s affecting lyricism, and the fourth’s rocket-powered energy were remarkable. This was as fine a performance of the Ravel Quartet as I’ve ever heard, and it left me hoping this ensemble will return to Maverick bringing us more novelties and at least one well-played familiar quartet.

Leslie Gerber, who lives in Woodstock, New York, has been reviewing professionally since 1966, for such venues as Performance Today, Fanfare, and Amazon.com. He also publishes the Parnassus Records label.

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