Spektral Quartet creates its own environment in a world premiere from Samuel Adams

United StatesUnited States Glass, Schubert, Samuel Adams: Spektral Quartet (Clara Lyon, Maeve Feinberg [violins], Doyle Armbrust [viola], Russell Rolen [cello]) Presented by Cal Performances, Hertz Hall, University of California, Berkeley, 13.2.2022. (HS)

Maeve Feinberg, Clara Lyon (violins), Doyle Armbrust (viola), Russell Rolen (cello) © Jocelyn Chuang

Phillip Glass – String Quartet No.2, ‘Company’
Schubert – String Quartet in A minor, ‘Rosamunde’
Samuel Adams – String Quartet No.2, ‘Current’

The Chicago-based Spektral Quartet likes to push boundaries. Last year, when all of Cal Performances’ concerts were virtual, they teamed with singer and flutist Nathalie Joachim for a striking lineup of songs from her native Haiti, a program that delivered enchantment, musical depth and honest power.

Sunday’s concert, their first live appearance in the intimate Hertz Hall at the University of California, offered the world premiere of a new string quartet by Berkeley-based composer Samuel Adams. Alas, this is part of a farewell tour: the Spektral announced in November that they are disbanding later in 2022.

Adams, who wrote his String Quartet No.2 ‘Current’ on commission from Cal Performances, the quartet itself and New Music USA, said a few words that focused on what the snare drums were doing on stage with a string quartet. Violinists Clara Lyon and Maeve Feinberg, cellist Russell Rolen, and violist Doyle Armbrust took turns introducing the pieces they played.

Adams’s music aims to create environments, with some of it written to be played in specific locations to take advantage of the ambience and acoustic. He also likes to use computer-generated elements – in this case the four snare drums, arrayed in an arc behind the players, each activated by small speakers made for automobile sound systems that are placed on the face of the drums. Triggered remotely by one of the musicians, the sound conjured the whooshes of gentle nighttime shore waves.

The five movements, titled with tempo markings such as ‘fast, noisy’, ‘fast, quiet’ and ‘pulsing, simple’, emerged from a musical kernel that moved back and forth by a single step. This hypnotic mini-ostinato developed into layers that were enough to create a richer texture. The slow-moving soundscape’s generally modest texture would have been placid were it not tweaked by quarter tones, which introduced a steely sound, played almost entirely without vibrato. Finally, in the last movement, Lyon spun out a short melody with some beautiful vibrato, and the richer sound made it feel like bathing in morning sunshine.

In an introduction, Lyon and Adams both mentioned the piece’s long gestation period – six years, including a two-year delay in the debut because of pandemic cancellations. Clearly, the musicians are excited about this music, even if the results were, in the end, tepid. Interesting, yes, but not quite compelling.

The program began with Philip Glass and Schubert, an odd couple but the music had its links, as we shall see.

Philip Glass’s Quartet No.2 ‘Company’ dates from 1983, and uses music for interludes meant for a stage production of Samuel Beckett’s novella Company. The short movements, most barely two minutes long, whiz by quickly. Their signature minimalist elements hardly have enough time to develop a hypnotic effect. It is appealing music, though, much like his film scores (The Truman Show, The Hours) in finding earworms that keep us smiling. The program notes say that this was the first piece the group ever played together, and the familiarity paid off with a spare, simply-shaped rendering.

Schubert’s quartet shares several parallels with the Glass. It is also in A minor, employs lots of arpeggios and recycles some music originally intended for the stage. The second movement Andante uses a tune familiar to us from the composer’s Impromptu in B-flat. Though executed with their usual understated accuracy and devotion to detail, Spektral’s performance didn’t quite lock in to Schubert’s buoyancy.

Harvey Steiman

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