In 2017, we – alongside our friends in Third Coast Percussion and Lincoln Trio – played live on WFMT to celebrate each group's having been nominated for a Grammy Award last year. We're pleased to share that the station has included that broadcast as one of its '10 Best Live Performances at WFMT in 2017!'
"Chicago’s Spektral Quartet continues to explode the stereotype of how a classical string quartet should behave.
Violinists Clara Lyon and Maeve Feinberg, violist Doyle Armbrust and cellist Russell Rolen make it their mission to break free of constraints so that they might pull in new and more diverse listeners to the music they love.
Even for a polished chamber group that’s known for its boldly creative ways, 2017 was a watershed, and its singular achievements made the Spektral our choice as outstanding classical ensemble of the year.
No other local group made new and unfamiliar music so compelling an aural adventure. And not just new music: The Spektral brought as much finely calibrated vitality to Haydn as it did to Elliott Carter.
Its biggest coup of the year was a performance of Morton Feldman’s visionary five-hour String Quartet No. 2 (1983), in March at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Spektral’s acute concentration stopped time in its tracks.
October marked the launch of another cutting-edge Spektral venture, a season-long cycle of the four demanding string quartets of Arnold Schoenberg.
The real game-changer, however, was the quartet’s launch of three new concert series bringing fresh formats to unusual venues across the city.
The Dovetail series aims to foster cultural exchanges on the South Side, just as Once More, With Feeling tucks a composer conversation between performances of that composer’s music.
Then there’s Close Encounters, a series that includes everything from a concert with cocktails in a private Frank Lloyd Wright home, to painting instruction from an art professor while you listen to the quartet performing a commissioned work.
Just the sort of hip interdisciplinary mashup Spektral can bring off better than just about any other classical string quartet around, and a prime example of how the group made the impossible possible in 2017."
"This spirited, personable Chicago string quartet came calling with a wide-ranging program amiably titled “Playing Out.” Offering as its calling card a New Yorker’s piece as arranged by a current Chicagoan (Arthur Russell’s “I’m Hiding Your Present from You,” reworked by Katherine Young), the quartet reinforced bonds between the two cities in major pieces by George Lewis (Chicago-born, New York-based) and Anthony Cheung (a longtime New Yorker now teaching at the University of Chicago). And you’ll surely recall that flutist Claire Chase, who performed in Cheung’s piece, initially established the International Contemporary Ensemble in both Chicago and New York. A clever, appealing work by Chicago-based Samuel C. Adams filled the bill; the New York Classical Review ran an attentive account by David Wright."
"In just a few short years, the Spektral Quartet has established itself as Chicago’s premiere string quartet. Personnel changes have only bolstered their status, especially Clara Lyon coming aboard as first violinist.
In March the adventurous ensemble brought to Chicago the belated local premiere of Morton Feldman’s six-hour String Quartet No. 2 at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Spektral managed to shave nearly an hour off of Feldman’s epic canvas, yet the performance never felt rushed, and the players (violinists Lyon and Maeve Feinberg, violist Doyle Armbrust and cellist Russell Rolen) brought polished refinement, scrupulous focus, and a terraced array of dynamics to Feldman’s score, exploring the extreme degrees of pianissimo where most of this music lives."
I suppose returning to Eliza Brown’s String Quartet No. 1 is getting me all nostalgic.
Remember that, at the time we first performed this piece, less than a year had elapsed since we were just a weirdo bro-down that bought sixers of beer and sightread quartets. We titled the concert Break Right Through That Line as a nod to our (well, 3 out of 4 of us, anyway) alma mater’s fight song, and we even had a cake made with the concert poster edibly printed on the fondant.
It was Russ’s final recital before collecting his DMA at NU–and this bears mentioning–one of the faculty members on his committee didn’t want to pass him because it was a concert featuring…SHOCK! HORROR!…all contemporary music and he wasn’t playing solo. His name wasn’t Capt. Cranky Pants, but it might as well have been. Way to promote initiative and entrepreneurship, Captain!
This has to go down as one of the only DMA recitals at Northwestern that filled a hall, and it firmed up our commitment to champion the music of Chicago composers. And hey, the performance really isn’t half-bad, either!
It’s just a little vertigo-inducing to imagine how much we’ve changed since that day in 2011. There are the obvious elements, like bringing on two incredible new violinists, not hearing crickets each time we apply for a grant, and getting our ensemble name spelled correctly in emails (92%?). And then there are the perhaps less obvious ones. Like the trust and wordless communication that is only earned from years of being on stage together. That sounds kind of grand, but I just mean that the six years since that performance have added up to something.
So of course the way that we play Eliza’s first quartet has changed since then. I recall that when we recorded it for our debut album, Chambers, Russ was riding a pony of playing-harmonics-sans-extraneous-noise deep into the sunset…which made me want to scream that, yeah, well, his shoes did not compliment his belt so well…and now this sort of picking nits is standard, and encouraged. We would apply the same rigor to this generation of music as the Mozart quartet we were playing at the time. Oooh boy…I am not posting that Dissonance video.
We have so much more to tell you–and of course, so does Eliza–and this is the reason we created the Once More, With Feeling! series at Constellation. There’s always more to the story than what you hear in a performance, and our aim is to take you deep inside a single piece of music. Not just to give you the backstory, but to show it to you from the inside, out. We considered titling the series Inside Out during an early brainstorming session, but Disney shut it down via a text message from their Future Crimes division.
ONCE MORE, WITH FEELING!
featuring composer Eliza Brown
Friday, Dec 1
"There are many string quartets seeking to reinvent the ensemble as the relatable, hipster cousin of stuffy chamber music. The approach of playing pubs, flashmobs, and videogame tournaments certainly makes chamber music more accessible by meeting audiences where they are, but sometimes by sacrificing more adventurous music. On the other hand, some old guard ensembles seem to be stuck in a traditional approach, expecting the audience to make all of the effort to understand and contextualize the repertoire.
Spektral Quartet takes the best of both worlds; the ensemble performs challenging works in a way that makes them intense, personal, and accessible. In a performance sponsored by Carolina Performing Arts, this ensemble married the emotional intensity and energy of the modern approach with the traditional expectation that the listener is equally responsible for investing intellectually in their own artistic experience. Spektral Quartet's marketing is quirky, their interpretations deeply felt, their repertoire challenging (for both performers and audience), and their program notes erudite and thorough. The overall effect was a heady brew that teased the brain and wrenched the heart."
"The beauty of Spektral Quartet’s impassioned performance was that it served both sides of Schoenberg’s music so well. As led by the group’s superb first violinist Clara Lyon–who also wrote the perceptive program notes–the players were fully in synch with the rhapsodic lyrical flights.Yet the musicians also conveyed the sense that the breakdown of tonality is right around the corner—in the fin de siecle decadence of the waltz fragment played by Lyon and Armbrust about ten minutes in; the buzzing high harmonics that seem to anticipate Ligeti; and the unsettled repose of the penultimate Langsame Viertel section.Spektral Quartet gave the belated Chicago premiere of Morton Feldman’s six-hour String Quartet No. 2 last March, so Schoenberg’s unbroken three-quarter-hour work is a comparative bagatelle.Still, this is an epic, hugely challenging score and Spektral put it across with bristling fire and conviction. The communicative playing kept the music moving forward, naturally leading one on to the next episode. The final section was joyous in its bumptious high spirits, and, with an artful deceleration, they conveyed the spare, quiet solace of the coda, beautifully played by all.The Spektral musicians were equally eloquent advocates for Brahms’ Quartet in C minor on the first half."
This weekend, we recorded a new album with one of our jazz heroes, Miguel Zenón. Yo Soy La Tradición is a concert-length work inspired by the folk traditions of Miguel's native Puerto Rico, and it's a piece we've fallen head-over-heels for. We think you're really going to love this album when it drops in early 2018.
Because of the timing, we spent a good amount of our hang talking about the hurricane damage in Puerto Rico, which is heartbreaking. We hope you'll consider joining us in contributing to the relief effort. Here is one organization that may not yet be on your radar.
Also, we clearly can't be trusted to be around all this gear (see below)...
After some inspiring travels earlier in the summer, we went our separate ways for some much-deserved time off in August: Maeve to Maine, Clara to Pennsylvania/Virginia/Kansas, Doyle to South Dakota/Ohio, and Russ to Washington State.
We're pleased to report that none of us went blind while staring at the solar eclipse.
We thought we'd share some SFW photo highlights with you as we dig into our rep for the current season, which we'll be announcing later this month. It's a DOOZY, y'all...
Just in the nick of time, it's our SUMMER READING LIST! This year we expanded our reach (including composers, actors, musicians, fans, and board members) and narrowed our entries (let's be honest, last year's was out of control) to ten top-shelf recommenders.
Our request for this list is: "Share one book that you love or that you think others will love, and 2-3 sentences why."
As you'll see, some of these brilliant folks are quite bad at counting. As you'll also see, the current state of affairs in our country has edged out the breezy beach reads for some chewy and thought-provoking editions. Leaked episodes of Game of Thrones has you covered on the escapism front, and our friends are on top of the blown-your-brain-wide-open one.
Thank you to Marcos Balter, Jill DeGroot, Daniel Felsenfeld, Dai Fujikura, William Riley Leitch, Nicholas Photinos, Fred Sherry, James Smith, Alex Temple, and Michael Patrick Thornton for the phenomenal list...and happy reading to all of you!
MARCOS BALTER (composer)
I'm reading Elizabeth Strout's ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE, which is a collection of short stories. I really like how she sees beauty in the mundane. Bonus: if you've read her MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON, one of the short stories in this book involves a school janitor who gives some new insights on the dysfunctional Bartons.
JILL DEGROOT (Noise Bias founder / Cacophony Magazine editor / flutist)
I would like to recommend LIVING A FEMINIST LIFE by Sara Ahmed. In it, Ahmed states "Feminism is homework." Addressing the ways in which we distance ourselves from the society we critique, this visionary take on feminist theory serves as an illuminating, and often painful, look in the mirror. Using feminist of color scholarship as the foundation, Sara Ahmed brilliantly offers solutions that can help up rise to the challenge of living a feminist life.
DANIEL FELSENFELD (composer)
This summer, like many, I have been trying to understand the (at best) fractious nature of our country. So my reading has been accordingly scaled.
Howard Jacobson’s PUSSY: A fantasia on our POTUS, but cast as if written by a British contemporary Italo Calvino. Peculiar, and terrifying. And funny.
Woodward and Bernstein’s THE FINAL DAYS and Elizabeth Drew’s WASHINGTON JOURNAL: In a way reading about Watergate is giving me a ray of hope. Both of these books detail how that quaintly corrupt (by comparison) administration toppled in on itself. It beats reading Victor Klemperer’s AND I SHALL NOW BEAR WITNESS (which is relevant and chilling and brilliant), because at least Nixon had the good sense not to murder a massive chunk of the population due to father issues. Also Mad Magazine’s MAD ABOUT TRUMP brings the funny, if any of this were actually funny.
Wilhelm Reich’s THE MASS PSYCHOLOGY OF FASCISM is a must-read if you are at all curious how all of this works—as necessary (and far weirder) than Hannah Arendt’s THE ORIGINS OF TOTALITARIANISM. Both outline grand trends that allow a nation to no longer be sovereign.
Jane Meyer’s DARK MONEY, Jaques Barzun’s THE CULTURE WE DESERVE, and Richard Hofstadter’s THE PARANOID STYLE IN AMERICAN POLITICS trace the lineage—the long and deliberate lineage—of all that is coming down our international pike, laying out how surprisingly un-sudden any of this is.
But most deliberately, I am currently midway through two very important pieces of literature: William Gaddis’ JR and Gore Vidal’s seven-volume NARRATIVES OF EMPIRE sequence. The former explains the ill-gotten financial gains that drive the political climate, and the latter is a sprawling cri de couer for the American Experiment.
DAI FUJIKURA (composer)
My recommendation is 10% HUMAN: HOW YOUR BODY'S MICROBES HOLD THE KEY TO HEALTH AND HAPPINESS. I have been obsessed with this topic, bacterias, inside us, on us, and surround us, and how we are all let to live by them. I have even written a new orchestral work based on this called Glorious Clouds. The sense of we are all sharing the planet, humans are not controlling anything, the bacteria are!
WILLIAM RILEY LEATCH (trombonist)
My pick is SEX CRIMINALS by Matt Fraction (author) and Chip Zdarsky (artist). I read comics and one of the best series being published AT THIS VERY MOMENT is Sex Criminals. The premise is (parents, you may want to turn the dial for the next few minutes) two people can stop time when they orgasm. This title does incredibly well to normalize taboos surrounding sexuality and identity. Each issue features a long column of letters at the end from a vibrant community that is heartwarmingly inclusive and aware.
NICHOLAS PHOTINOS (Eighth Blackbird cellist and solo artist)
I'd be happy to recommend James Baldwin's THE FIRE NEXT TIME. Books sometimes present themselves to me. When I was 17, I was taking a walk with my sister in San Francisco, talking about never having read Jack Kerouac, and came across On the Road in the gutter. Maybe that only happens in SF. This was similar: a friend was staying at my place and had just finished this, and I had never read Baldwin. It's a quick read, honestly written, with so much beauty and wisdom in the face of such immense pain, as palpable in 1963 as it is today. Like this famous passage: "I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain."
FRED SHERRY (Juilliard School/Mannes College of Music/Manhattan School of Music cello faculty / violinist)
My first recommendation is ON FOOD AND COOKING: THE SCIENCE AND LORE OF THE KITCHEN by Harold McGee (revised edition). If you are planning to cook exotic dishes this summer, Harold McGee will tell you not how to do it, but why to do it, and why it tastes the way it does. This book includes everything from chemical analysis to historical anecdotes about food and cooking. Buon appetito. Then, if you haven’t read RAMEAU’S NEPHEW by Diderot, you must because it is funny and informative.
JAMES SMITH (Attorney, Spektral board of directors)
Skip your next planned read of a best-selling novel and read a book guaranteed to be more compelling; reserve a spot on the edge of your seat, which is where you will be through every page of JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH: THE LEARNED MUSICIAN by Christoph Wolf, which illuminates the family life and career journey of one of western civilization’s true giants. This book has nearly everything. Michael Jordan was cut from his school’s basketball team for not having a foreseeable future in the game; well, Bach was cut as the church organist and conductor for lack of true musical potential. LOL! Yankees or Red Sox is no rivalry at all; look instead to the titanic contest as to the great organist of the age – Bach or Handel. Want to marvel at a workaholic who could love, kick out twenty children he truly loved and dotingly nurtured while holding down four or five jobs? This is the book. Some indication of the book’s quality: Wolf’s storytelling here was a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize the year it hit the book stores.
ALEX TEMPLE (composer)
My recommendation is PSCHO NYMPH EXILE by Porpentine Heartscape. A beautiful, surreal, disturbing, touching story of queer trans love in a futuristic dystopia full of magical girls and giant monster battles. Sex, violence, drugs, kink, body horror, trauma, romance and exploitation, all conveyed through cryptic mini-chapters, heavy with neologisms and footnotes.
Joseph Campbell said you can tell a culture is in trouble when you see it scrambling to re-tell itself its shared myths; I find it interesting that across TV and film, we're seeing a return to the American master of horror, Stephen King. So, in order to obviously save the world, during our summer of fear, I re-read Stephen King's IT, read his MR. MERCEDES, and am currently reading 11/22/63. Other astounding recent reads: Colson Whitehead's THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD, James Barrat's OUR FINAL INVENTION, Gregorie Chamayou's A THEORY OF THE DRONE. In the queue: Lauren Groff's FATES & FURIES, Ernest Cline's READY PLAYER ONE, and Ayelet Gundar-Goshen's WAKING LIONS.