Spektral Quartet welcomes back the Live Artist Series to Lawrence

There is no denying that live music is a central part of Lawrence’s social landscape. This certainly explains the truly exceptional energy in the Memorial Chapel this past weekend when, on Friday, October 1, Lawrence welcomed back the Artist Series with its first live guest artist in over a year: the Spektral Quartet.  

 The ensemble features Clara Lyon and Maeve Feinberg on violin, Doyle Armbrust on viola and Russel Rolen on cello. An internationally recognized and Grammy-nominated string quartet based in Chicago, Spektral is known for its boundary-pushing performance and recording projects, its mastery of the standard string quartet repertoire and its innovative contributions to the landscape of modern chamber music. Each of these aspects of the group were on full display during their Friday night program. Through the works of Claude Debussy, Henri Dutilleux and Anna Thorvaldsdottir, the program centered upon reflections on what we feel when watching the night sky.    

From their first note, Spektral conveyed a remarkable passion and depth in their playing, proving that the audience was in for a magical experience. The group opened with a masterful rendition of famous French composer Claude Debussy’s String Quartet in G Minor. Perhaps best known for Claire de lune from his Suite Bergamasque for solo piano, Debussy’s adventurous and nuanced take on the string quartet idiom was expertly realized under Spektral’s hands. Encouraging the audience to think of the piece as though it were meant to be performed outdoors, the group evoked a variety of natural scenes and images of the night sky across the composition’s four movements. The ensemble soared through delicate and intense moments, playing with beautiful balance between the four voices, impressive musical and visual coordination and a depth of dynamics that could only fully shine through in-person. From the gorgeous ensemble sound of the intricately romantic first movement and grand dance-like finale to stirringly expressive solos from Lyon and Rolen in the pastoral second movement and from Feinberg and Armbrust in the delicate third movement, the group wowed the audience with a warmth only felt through live music.  

The momentum of the program continued with Henri Dutilleux’s Ainsi la Nuit, a quartet work in eight short movements specifically based on the feelings that come from viewing the night sky when we are alone. Another French composer following in Debussy’s neoclassical musical tradition, Dutilleux’s quartet work represented a much darker and more dissonant style than Debussy’s often serene and lush sonic textures. Evoking images of nighttime city streets, forests under the stars and nocturnal wildlife emerging from hiding for the evening, the piece’s busy and percussive qualities were a welcome contrast to the Debussy. Even in softer moments (such as the movement Litanies or the opening of Nocturne), Spektral’s intensity and attention to detail conjured a powerfully eerie and reflective mood.  

Following an intermission, the group performed perhaps their daring selection of the night which was 21st century Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Enigma, a work commissioned by Spektral, Carnegie Hall and Washington Performing Arts. This piece, premiered by the quartet in 2019 and written using unconventional sounds from each player’s bow and hands on the strings in addition to traditional harmony and melody, was an avant-garde showstopper. With the lights of the Chapel dimmed and the room tuned with special amplification (courtesy of Conservatory audio engineers Brent Hauer and Alvina Tan), the reverberation of every string-pluck and bow-scratch placed the listener directly in the vastness of space. Sounds of whirring, humming and scratching were juxtaposed with gorgeous chords and cinematic melodies, often recalling new-age sound art, famous sci-fi film soundtracks and even electronic music. Ultimately, the passion and care with which the group performed Thorvaldsdottir’s ground-breaking work moved the audience to an extended standing ovation long missing from inside the Chapel’s walls. 

The Spektral Quartet’s stunning performance was a definitively triumphant return to live music for the Lawrence community. Beyond the indescribable emotions that witnessing such an outstanding performance generates, the evening was made special simply due to the gathering of old and new friends in a beautiful familiar space. With more performances fast-approaching, one can only hope this triumphant return is for good.  

The next performances of the 2021-2022 concert season will be the Lawrence University Concert Choir at 8 P.M. on Friday, October 8 and the Lawrence University Orchestras at 8 P.M. on Saturday October 9, both in the Lawrence Memorial Chapel.