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REVIEW: Spektral Quartet mixes music with art and audience participation

San Diego Union-Tribune

Christian Hertzog
May 27, 2022


When an usher hands you five postcards and a pen along with your program, you know that this will not be your usual string quartet concert.

The 5-by-7-inch postcards, each created by a visual artist, were part of the Spektral Quartet’s much awaited San Diego debut courtesy of the La Jolla Music Society.

The string quartet had previously been booked by ArtPower for an April 2020 program devoted to female composers such as Fanny Mendelssohn, Ruth Crawford Seeger and UCSD alumna Anna Thorvaldsdottir. Unfortunately, a month before their scheduled appearance, the COVID pandemic canceled all indoor concerts.

Fast forward to Thursday evening in Baker-Baum Concert Hall. Five works on the program were matched with a postcard each. We were to write on the postcards, inspired by the music.

First off was an arrangement of a four-voice motet, “O Magnum Mysterium,” by Tomás Luis de Victoria, one of the greatest masters of 16th-century common-practice counterpoint. It was paired with a black-and-white photograph by Eliaichi Kimaro of a dandelion seedhead called “Everything Is Connected.” We were asked to write to someone to whom we felt connected.

Violinists Clara Lyon and Theo Espy, violist Doyle Armbrust, and cellist Russell Rolen played Victoria without any vibrato, sounding like a viol consort with perfect intonation. There’s a striking moment towards the end where the meter shifts from four beats to three. In the motet, this marks the end of the traditional text, concluding with a chain of “alleluias.” That context was lost in the instrumental arrangement.

Excerpts from standard repertory — the first movement of Debussy’s String Quartet and the Andante from Schubert’s “Rosamunde” String Quartet — were treated to lustrous playing by Spektral. Lyon traded chairs with Espy, and her violin soared above the group with a sensuous cantabile in these numbers. It was quartet playing of the highest order, a tantalizing glimpse of what these four could do in a regular concert.

The intermissionless concert proceeded with spoken introductions and screen projections, where the postcard art was elucidated. Debussy was accompanied by Kimaro’s painting “Custodian Of The World Within,” an abstract work where orange patches drifted across light and dark blues; we were asked to think about someone brave.

For the chronically ill Schubert, they suggested that we write something encouraging to someone who could use a kind word. The postcard was a surreal juxtaposition of a wooden shoe, a mountain, glass spheres, and snow (“Campanil Basso” by Antonia Contro).

Katherine Young remixed “Hiding Your Present From You” by the idiosyncratic Arthur Russell. Short melodic fragments were repeated with little or no development, juxtaposed with detuned melodies and bow-struck strings.

Tomeka Reid is a vibrant, improvising cellist-composer. Her “Prospective Dwellers,” while pleasant enough, was rather straight-laced and could have benefited from more risks or fantastical flights.

I did note some patrons writing or drawing during the music, but most of us simply listened and watched. We all put music on as a background to other tasks, but at a concert, I give it my full attention. Nothing I could scribble would improve on the chills I receive hearing Debussy.

Their performance left me wishing that I could have heard their 2020 ArtPower program, but alas! Spektral is disbanding and Thursday’s concert was the last time we could experience them in Southern California. Thankfully their playing was graced by the lovely acoustics of Baker-Baum Concert Hall.

Hertzog is a freelance writer.