Spektral throws a new-music disco party
The Spektral Quartet likes to put on performances that are not so much concerts as high-energy thrill rides for musically inquisitive listeners. The operative question behind all of them is: What makes a contemporary classical string quartet contemporary? The answers are many and varied, designed to provoke as often as delight.
So it was over the weekend at Constellation, where the virtuosic Chicago foursome presented a program of new and cutting-edge contemporary pieces, including world premieres by Charlie Sdraulic and Andrew McManus. The club was packed with Spektral groupies who were given instruction in how to dance the hustle following the performance.
The most mainstream and most rewarding of the four pieces was Chicago composer Augusta Read Thomas' "CHI" (2017), which the Spektral had premiered only a fortnight before at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel.
Taking its title from the Chinese word for the life-force, the piece's four succinct sections — two of them fast, two slow — found the Spektral musicians trading energized rhythmic cells as if in a manic relay-race. Sequences of spiraling rhythmic cells darted from player to player, with movements of soft luminosity providing expressive contrast.
McManus, another composer associated with the University of Chicago, seized the listener's imagination, albeit at prolonged duration, with his "Neurosonics 1" for electronic playback (2015), heard for the first time in tandem with a second part, "Pathways, Bursting (Neurosonics 2)," for quartet and electronics (2017).
The electronic portions — including complex rhythmic pulses and waves of white noise — derive from lab studies of the electrical patterns of rat neurons, conducted in collaboration with a U. of C. neuroscientist. The layers of acoustical and synthesized sound operate independently of each other; the acoustical portions were all over the stylistic map, from frenzied group exertions to airy waves of arpeggios. Violinists Clara Lyon and Maeve Feinberg, violist Doyle Armbrust and cellist Russell Rolen threw themselves into the dense thickets of notes with a nervosity and concentration that was nothing short of astonishing.
More performance art than music, Draulic's "scan," for amplified quartet (2016-17), turned what the composer calls "the strange ritual" of the concert experience on its head. As if constrained by unseen forces, three players mimed the act of performing without making any sounds. The only noises breaking the silence were faint crunches from the violist. The major sonic event was the unscripted scrape of a folding chair.
The program began with Simon Steen-Andersen's "Study for String Instrument #1" (2007), essentially a series of wailing, descending glissandos for four instruments moving in lockstep. At six minutes, it was enough.
The program closed a Spektral season marked by the premieres of 30 new works and the addition of Feinberg to the roster. The quartet is planning a Schoenberg cycle for next season, along with a three-concert series at Constellation that will incorporate composer conversations. Its busy touring schedule reminds us that the quartet is the only group currently representing Chicago new music outside the city.