On a beautiful Friday evening, kicking off the Memorial Day weekend, the Spektral Quartet (Aurelien Pederzoli, Austin Wulliman violins; Doyle Armbrust, viola, Russell Rolen, cello) gave an intimate performance at the University of Chicago Fulton Recital Hall. The evening was a concert with two personalities featuring 21st century works, with several of the composers in attendance, with the second half taking the audience back to the 19th century for a rare performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s only string quartet.
Many of the 21st century works shared a common characteristic, atmosphere. Behind the proclivity to use strict or extreme dynamics, tonal centers and motific structures, the musical elements were held together with an atmospheric mood.
The concert began with Zin Zin Zin Zin (2012) by Liza White, a work structured like a conversation or argument between instruments. Note cluster resembled screams that propelled the argument forward. As the work progressed, the clustered screams became more violent leading to a climactic pause. Tension breaks with bowed weeping, as if the two sides have finally conceded, but not before one final shallow scream. The piece ends with whimpering to silence.
The concert continued with Canticle (2013) by Jacob Banks, which was described by the quartet as a musical prism centered around the cello. The work begins spatial or open with a melody slowly rising, like a sunrise. When the cello enters, the melody evokes an Americana or Copland-esque spirit. Eventually, the mood changes to rhythmic chaos between the violins and viola. When the cello reenters, it brings focus and serenity to the musical shapes in the ensemble. The work concludes with an impressionistic ending as the cello passes its melody to viola to end the composition.
Eliza Brown’s String Quartet No. 1 is a test of dynamic control in the strictest sense. Performers must keep consistency between soft to loud, pianissimo to fortissimo throughout the performance. It was quite impressive to hear the hardly audible soft notes performed with amazing control. The quartet did a great job drawing the audience in. It is a composition that is meant to be heard in performance versus on a recording to appreciate the dynamic range it demands.
The highlight of the evening was Ben Hjertmann’s String Quartet No. 2 “Etude.” The audience instantly knew something special was about to happen when the quartet went to get different instruments. The composition embodies progressive rock arranged for a quartet. For the majority of the piece, performers are required to use a pick so the notes resemble a palm-muted guitar sound. The work begins with performers using a bow, but quickly morphs into what reminded me of passages that fell somewhere between John Petrucci and Roland Dyens. As a guitarist, it was awesome to see bowed instruments treated like guitars. It is, hands down, one of the coolest contemporary strings quartets I’ve heard.
To conclude the evening, the quartet performed Verdi’s String Quartet. It’s probably a composition that most people are unfamiliar with because when you think of Verdi, opera is usually what comes to mind. Rightly so, Verdi didn’t compose much chamber music. But this composition of four movements embodies the operatic qualities Verdi is known for, but scaled for a string quartet. Although the performance wasn’t perfect, the highlight was the masterfully performed Prestissimo (3rd Movement).
Overall, the evening, a tale of two halves, balanced each other out nicely showcasing the versatility of the ensemble. For a listing of upcoming performances, visit Spektral Quartet’s website.