Kontras Quartet unearths wide-ranging rep for American Music Project

June 09, 2023
By Tim Sawyier
The Kontras Quartet performed Wednesday evening at Ganz Hall for the American Music Project. Photo: AMP

On Wednesday night, Chicago’s own Kontras Quartet offered a wide-ranging survey of American string quartets at Roosevelt University’s Ganz Hall. They were presented by the American Music Project (AMP), a brainchild of Lawrence A. Johnson—also the founder of Chicago Classical Review and its satellites—that seeks to present and advocate for noncanonical American classical music.

The evening was a thoughtful window into a largely neglected corner of American chamber music from the past hundred years, and made a strong case for the continued exploration of this repertoire, in keeping with AMP’s mission.

The program began with Amy Beach’s String Quartet in One Movement, Op. 89, sketched in 1921 and heavily revised in 1929. Beach’s score has an arc structure, beginning and ending with murky Grave sections, which frame the cantering main body of the work. In her own distinct voice, Beach mines Alaskan Inuit folk melodies in a manner reminiscent of Dvořák’s engagement with American spirituals, and the involved harmonic language here refutes her reputation for stylistic conservatism.

As was the case throughout the evening, the Kontras—violinists Eleanor Bartsch and François Henkins, violist Ben Weber, and cellist Jean Hatmaker—provided convincing advocacy for this largely forgotten music. While the central body of Beach’s quartet at times came off as diffuse, the Kontras’ performance made it seem an injustice that the work was not even published until fifty years after her death.

Next was Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s String Quartet No. 1, “Calvary,” from 1952, written when the composer was a 20-year-old student at the Manhattan School of Music. Here driving outer movements full of jazzy snap and lyrical sweep frame a central Adagio of restrained longing in the muted strings, with the spiritual “Calvary” present in more or less conspicuous guises throughout. The Kontras players brought this accomplished and dynamic score to life with their idiomatic reading.

Walter Piston has probably never won an audience favorite award, as much of his oeuvre can come across as sterile and academic on a first encounter. There is evidence for this reputation in his String Quartet No. 3, though the performance from the Kontras made clear there is more to the New Englander than heady industrial counterpoint. A motoric opening Allegro precedes an unsettled central lamentation that finds only fleeting moments of repose, before giving way to a vigorously contrapuntal closing Allegro. The Kontras seemed fully in sync with Piston’s musical language, offering a performance that showed there is more spirit and soul in the composer’s music than he often receives credit for.

The concert’s second half was devoted to music by living American composers, beginning with John Harbison’s single-movement String Quartet No. 3 (1993). In her thoughtful prefatory remarks, cellist Hatmaker said this score feels like a “trust fall” to play, alluding to its many complexities and intricate metric shifts. It also feels like a trust fall to listen to, as trying to follow a single thread in Harbison’s fragmentary and episodic writing can prove frustrating, while allowing the whole 20-minute score to wash over you has a more cohesive impact.

The Kontras offered an authoritative performance. From the powerfully sustained opening gesture, they charted a sure course through its many fits and starts. For this work Harbison was inspired by an image of Americans attending church and singing in a congregation. A hymn-like aesthetic becomes prominent at key moments, though with subtle harmonic shadings that provide an almost sepia tone, which the Kontras delivered with delicate refinement.

The evening closed with Carrot Revolution (2015) by Gabriella Smith, who was born two years after the Harbison quartet was written. The work was commissioned by the Barnes Foundation, and was inspired by the unexpected juxtapositions of art objects in the famous Philadelphia Museum (moved from Merion with some controversy in 2012). It takes its title from a misattributed Cezanne quotation about the revolutionary potential of “freshly” observing a single carrot.

Hatmaker described Carrot Revolution as “Piazzolla meets prog rock,” and it is hard to beat her description of this ecstatic score. Full of extended techniques including percussive effects on the body of the cello—perhaps “freshly” seeing the instrument?—Smith’s movement is aggressively driving though never loses a fundamental dance-like quality. At moments the music rises to an unhinged pitch, before a bluesy interlude near to the end slows things down just enough to leave room to accelerate to the finish, which the Kontras musicians brought down with panache. 

The Smith piece was the only work previously in the Kontras’ repertoire, and the quartet deserves enormous credit for putting together the exceptionally demanding music on the ample balance of the program with such conviction.

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