Spektral EMBARKs at Bottle

It was a cold March 2nd as the dregs of winter sloshed around in my half-empty glass. It's this almost-Spring time of year that my wishful thinking gets the better of me, and I often find myself underdressed and disappointed.

It was a quick bike ride from Logan Square to the Empty Bottle, a post/punk/indie venue that technically exists in the Ukrainian Village neighborhood but, really, it's in more of the no man's land of Western Avenue that almost borders the Humboldt and Wicker Park neighborhoods. Western is big street; it's more about going than staying, bringing all sorts of peoples and genres together.

According to the Bottle's website, they host: "indie-rock, electronic, experimental, jazz; post-this and pre-that." While they don't specifically mention Classical (is it pre-experimental?), after Wednesday night's Spektral Quartet concert, maybe they'll stop flirting with the idea and get on board. [The Spektral was actually the 2nd string quartet I've seen at the venue, the first being the Quartet Parapluie doing Different Trains--very different journeys.]

Once settled in, I got a nice local craft brew, a French style from the general Warrenville area, to subdue my ennui, and I watched as the space filled up. I was warm enough, but I still felt underdressed. The quartet was set up to play in the space in front of the stage, there were a couple rows of chairs, a couple high-top tables, and standing  room by the bar. By concert time, the bar area was full of standees; latecomers were SOL.

There are two kinds of music: music that is about something (program music) and music that is about music (absolute music). The Spektral concert was large-scale version of the former: called EMBARK, audience members were given "cartes d'embarquement" with the program, and each piece had a general travel theme.

The captain of the ship was JC Aevaliotis, a 2nd City alum and storyteller, who opened the evening with a personal narrative story about a weary journey home with bags filled with a dead man's clothes--creative nonfiction FTW. Endearing and amiable, the emcee sprinkled his story with subtle humor, such that I found myself smirking to myself several times, even laughing out loud. Aevaliotis then narrated the program notes for each piece on the concert with a similar candor and humor. It was a clever mash-up art forms that kept the music at the front, using narrative to support it. I found myself thinking that program notes should be written by storytellers more often, making music narrative rather than historical or technical. 

The music started with Hugo Wolf's Italian Serenade, in which the composer channels the weightless lyricism of Italy, giving the impression of a journey without actually leaving the house. JC said it was written by a crazy person; Wolf, a syphilitic, was committed to an asylum 10 years after composing the quartet.
A propos of asyla, the next piece on the program was Arcadiana by Englishman Thomas Adès, one-time Wunderkind, now Wundermensch. Adès wrote the 7-movement quartet when he was 22, inspired by the idea of Arcadia, a sort of secular Eden to which it is impossible to return. Making an apt description would be like catching a lightning bug with chopsticks; each player had such individual parts, simultaneous layers that were precisely coordinated by the composer. Each part was like an electron cloud of possibilities, except there was no chance; I learned afterwards that everything was precisely notated, making their performance even more astounding. Aevaliotis said that the penultimate 6th movement was one of the more beautiful, related to Elgar's Nimrod variation, and that the entire audience will like unless they are dead inside. As such, I was pretty sure I'd hate it but found myself getting lost in it anyway, imagining what Sigur Rós song it sounded like or what prime-time drama finale it could accompany. The rest of the movements were much more subtle and ephemeral. With such complexity in a piece, I'd need to hear it many times more to fully enjoy the delicate beauty along the way.
There was a brief entr'acte to allow for more drinking (although several annoying individuals couldn't wait, interrupting the quieter moments of the Adès with cha-ching), after which came Quartet No. 1 by Bedrich Smetana, dubbed "From My Life" (aka FML).
The piece was an autobiographical reflection by the composer, from first loves to the deafness of old age. The music itself is surprisingly light but came to life through Spektral's performance, concluding the concert with timid melancholy, poise and grace.
3 composers, 3 different journeys: Wolf went mad; Adès never found Arcadia; Smetana went deaf. An interesting use of programming, format, and venue that created a narrative out of 3 individual program pieces.
The real story, though, is the venue. If the medium is the message, then the venue is the medium. What does it say to see a string quartet music at Orchestra Hall versus the Empty Bottle? Do we want Classical music to be cool, and does that take away from it being loved and respected?
The meme going around Twitter these days is "#hipsterclassical", in which Tweeters invent quotes from hipster Classical music fans. This should sound like an oxymoron: Classical music is more about substance and structure, while hipsterism, a snobbish version of pop culture, is more about surface. A very timely blog post came my way from an ordinary-looking blogger with a vapid notion that we are forsaking substance for surface. Can't we have our cake and eat it too? Why can't Classical music be cool because of its substance? 
As it is, there is a veneer to Classical music venues that makes it uncool. Tautologically, institutions are uncool; indie/DIY is cool. Cool isn't Quality, but it doesn't necessarily detract from it either. Institutions unwittingly send an uncool message, one that older generations are unaware of; said the fish, "What's water?" 
The Spektral Quartet navigated these troubled waters and delivered a precious cargo, including one real gem: cleverly packaged and attractive, cool but substantive. It was another  breath of new life in a grey world too long dormant. My high expectations were exceeded.
There remains the issue that venues like the Bottle aren't set up for non-amplified music. In fact, there's a sign behind the bar: "You're not too old; it's too loud. Earplugs $1." Except for a few delicate moments in the Adès, the sound was good; I was a little surprised. The room, however, didn't help the musicians much; the lack of resonance brought to the fore every slight imprecision and imperfect intonation. Fortunately, the quartet was of such a caliber that these moments were rare, but less polished groups should be wary.
The Spektral Quartet performs a handful of times between now and summer--mostly in more traditional venues. I would love to see more such narrated concerts; I already have a list in mind of non-musicians to invite.
[addendum, unrelated: if you haven't listened to Clay Shirky's TED talk on institutions and collaborations, do so here.]

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