“Preposterous, charming and brilliantly performed.” BBC Music Magazine
The Chicago-based Spektral Quartet are funny people. Their bios once took the form of Q&As with questions including “Which string quartet in history had the best hair?” and “What should Spektral Quartet’s metal, alter-ego band name be?” (The best answer: “Extended Deathniques.”) When performing Morton Feldman’s 6-hour-long second string quartet, they created a ridiculous, ‘80s-style workout video called “SIX-HOUR ABS!” And their most recent album, Serious Business, includes a composition by Chris Fisher-Lockhead built around close transcriptions of stand-up comics. Their humor—and their personalities in general—are integral to what they do, signs of the expressivity central to their musical approach. This approach allows the quartet to devise creative, diverse programs that draw connections across centuries.
For this concert, they contemplate conceptions of Romanticism. It opens with Augusta Read Thomas’ Chi, one of two works on the program written specifically for the quartet. Using “Chi” and other Eastern concepts of energy as guiding metaphors, the piece seeks to embody the sound of Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago. While the odd numbered movements brim with interlocking rhythms, it is the even-numbered movements, with their inward gaze and individual focus, that paint a vision of romanticism. “It really doesn’t hold back with its emotional purpose or content,” observes quartet violist Doyle Armbrust.
Next is Philip Glass’ second String Quartet, based on incidental music he wrote for a 1983 production of Samuel Beckett’s Company. It showcases everything that makes Philip Glass Philip Glass: looping minor-key chord progressions, churning arpeggios, poignant melodies. Viewing romanticism at a bit of a remove, the piece still allows space for emotive expression.
Samuel Adams’ Quartet Movement was also written for the Spektral Quartet. Ruminating over fragments of Schubert, it flickers at the edge of silence; Armbrust describes it as “dreams of romanticism.” Two snare drums attached to speakers join the quartet on stage and add uncanny resonance to the work’s looping cadences and slowly cycling sonorities. Adams is currently composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and this will be the first of three appearances for him in this Carolina Performing Arts season. “One of the things we love about [Adams],” Armbrust adds, “is that he seems very open in a way that is uncommon, in terms of being on a journey, trying to take something as far as it will go for him.”
The concert concludes with one of the pillars of Romantic-era string quartet repertory: Brahms’ first quartet from 1873. The work sits at a historical hinge, simultaneously paying homage to Beethoven and other early 19th-century masters while also paving the way for later advances by Bartók and Schoenberg. By recontextualizing the rest of the program, Brahms shows both how far we have come musically from the Romantic era and how much its influence still reverberates.