Kontras Quartet brightens a rainy afternoon with bracing array of American music

June 03, 2024
By Wynne Delacoma
The Kontras Quartet performed Saturday at Ganz Hall for the American Music Project. Photo AMP

What a pleasure to spend a rainy Chicago Saturday afternoon listening to the Kontras Quartet perform in the warm acoustic of Roosevelt University’s elegant, intimate Ganz Hall.

And with repertoire focused on unfamiliar string quartet works by a wide assortment of American composers, welcome discoveries amplified the pleasure.

Saturday’s concert launched the 10th season of the American Music Project, founded to spotlight composers and works rarely heard in the concert hall. Typically for the project, the music ranged across eras, from late 19th century romanticism to contemporary, dissonance-spiced lyricism.

Two of the concert’s composers—Bernard Herrmann and Pulitzer Prize winner Ellen Taaffe Zwilich—are well-known names. Herrmann is best known for his film scores ranging from Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane to multiple Alfred Hitchcock movies including  Vertigo and Psycho

In Herrmann’s Echoes, a single movement, 20-minute piece composed in 1965, the players found exactly the right balance of dark menace and stretches of wary calm so characteristic of his scores for Hitchcock. The Kontras members—violinists Eleanor Bartsch and Francois Henkins; violist Ben Weber and cellist Jean Hatmaker—play with a rich, blended sound that is both impeccably precise and expressively fluid.  A deep-toned, two-note rocking bit of melody, set up by Bartsch in the opening bars and eventually taken up by the others, returned periodically like a terrifying worry that cannot be banished.

Zwilich’s 2012 piece, Voyage, was a jagged mosaic. Full of dancing energy, its off-kilter rhythms and unsettled melodies sent the musicians scurrying every which way. Weber’s plush, velvet-toned viola occasionally turned into a plucked mandolin, and Hatmaker’s cello shifted between merciless, slashing strokes and heartfelt rhapsodic song. Listening intently to one another, the players rode Zwilich’s abrupt shifts with ease while never losing the piece’s unsettled, slightly manic undercurrent.

Two pieces composed nearly 100 years apart—Jonathan Blumhofer’s Semper Dowland, semper dolens from 2013 and Quincy Porter’s In Monasterio, a work from 1927—offered a major shift in mood. 

Inspired by a brooding, hymn-like melody by John Dowland, the great Elizabethan-era composer and lutenist, Semper Dowland opened the concert, At times it was viciously edgy, with the players assaulting their discordant strings with angry energy. But when Weber’s strong viola pulled away into an ardent lament, we were transported to the dark introspection of centuries-old liturgical music.

Only five minutes long but set in three movements, Porter’s In Monasterio, was even more evocative. Opening with a somber unison drone, it moved slowly into melodies that brought to mind Gregorian chant (\and, for modern ears, the music of Arvo Pärt). The Estonian composer wasn’t yet born when Porter wrote In Monasterio, but we can’t help but hear foretastes of Pärt’s profound melancholy in Porter’s slow, suspended melodies.

The concert closed with Foote’s String Quartet No. 1, an engaging, four-movement work in full-blown, windswept Romantic style from 1883. Foote was based in Boston, and there were hints of 19th century American pizzaz in his optimistic, dancing Scherzo. The Kontras Quartet’s artistry was on full display in the finale. Whether spinning out a seamless, flowing melody or tossing tricky rhythmic fragments among themselves, their playing combined hair-trigger precision and emotional abandon. 

The American Music Project’s 2024 season continues September 21 with a concert by the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra (featuring symphonies of David Diamond, William Grant Still and John Vincent) and a piano recital by Emiko Edwards November 3 at Ganz Hall. americanmusicproject.net; ipomusic.org

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