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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.
Spektral's musicianship was technically brilliant, but not necessarily conspicuous. Clara Lyon and Maeve Feinberg (violin), Doyle Armbrust (viola), and Russell Rolen (cello) produced dynamic interpretations that insisted on your full attention, so the listener may not recognize the careful craftsmanship behind the production. The artistic approach was so unified that if you were lucky enough to notice, you may have wondered if each individual pulse of vibrato was synchronized. Technically difficult and musically cryptic works were immediately transformed into intensely relatable experiences – and they made it look easy.
The program featured two pieces commissioned by the ensemble by Augusta Read Thomas and Samuel Adams, and quartets by Philip Glass and Johannes Brahms. Spektral prides itself on re-contextualizing Classical and Romantic era works using innovative programming and recent works (and in the case of the Adams piece, "recent" means not necessarily even finished). The approach was highly effective, especially with the way the Brahms bridged the gap between the neo-Schubertian overtones and the wholly contemporary elements in the first half of the program.
Thomas' recent work Chi (2016) opened the program with verve and force. The work follows a fast-slow, fast-slow format, with a short but extraordinarily potent last movement. The piece explores four concepts drawn from Eastern philosophies of life energy. The fast movements, "Chi" and "Meridians," are made up of a rich texture of intense swirling fragments that still maintain a lovely sense of unity. The slower movements, "Aura" and "Chakras," featured shimmering sustained notes and harmonics somewhat reminiscent of Vaughan Williams. The piece is extraordinarily visually evocative, emotionally intense, and musically transcendent. Spektral Quartet's interpretation compounded the strengths of the work into a powerhouse performance.
Thomas' work was followed by Philip Glass' String Quartet No. 2, "Company." The work was originally conceived as interstitial music for a theatrical adaptation of Samuel Beckett's novella of the same name. The piece still bears the fingerprints of theatre, which makes it particularly adept at the type of storytelling so suited to Spektral's approach. Glass' characteristic obsessive harmonic musings never felt repetitive in this rendition.
Following "Company," Adam's Quartet Movement (2016) took the stage. The name belies the structure of the piece, which is made up of multiple micro-movements. The quartet was joined by two snares activated by transducer speakers, which play variants of white noise and pure sine waves at intervals throughout the piece. The work is haunted by fragments of Schubert. While violist Armbrust describes the approach as "dreams of romanticism," there was more of a nightmarish than dreamy quality to the way Schubertian voicings emerged and dissolved. While the integration of digital and acoustic sound was compelling, Adams' repeated use of almost imperceptibly slow glissandi resulted in a sustained level of microtonal dissonance that was a bitter pill to swallow, even with Spektral's exuberant and passionate performance.
Following intermission, the quartet performed Brahms' String Quartet No. 1 in C minor. Paired with other compositions still relatively wet behind the ears, Brahms approach to the quartet was re-contextualized in a unique way. Brahms role as a transitional composer was illuminated beautifully. Even though fatigue appeared to dim a bit of the sparkle, the quartet still approached the piece with the same serious, audience-oriented intensity, giving Brahms' restless turbulence equal footing with the more technically adventurous compositions in the first half of the program.