Magyars make marvelous music

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

This season’s Classic Concert Series of the University of Chicago Presents came to a close a week ago Friday night in Mandel Hall, 1131 E. 57th St., with a spirited performance by the Keller String Quartet: András Keller and Zsófia Környei, violins; Zoltán Gál, viola; and Judit Szabó, cello. This Hungarian ensemble was brought in to replace the Czech Pavel Haas Quartet, who cancelled their performance owing to one member’s pregnancy.

The pinch-hitting Magyars stepped up and offered a splendid performance. They opened with the String Quartet in A minor, Op. 51, No. 2 by Brahms. This work seemingly begins “in medias res,” and the quartet proved themselves ready for action. The opening movement was notable for the cello’s dew drop soft pizzicatos, subtle yet supple. The second movement had wonderful contrasts between long, slow musical breaths and short, sharp bursts of sound. This ensemble has a tremendous sense of pace: whether fast or slow, their tempos are never rushed or ponderous.

Schnittke’s String Quartet No. 3 was gripping. The almost reckless veering from style to style that Schnittke quilts together was perfectly realized by the ensemble. At times the polyphony was rendered with a smooth glaze, at other times the music itself seemed to revel in its own subversiveness.

Beethoven’s String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 132 was the concluding work, which the group rendered with considerable style and gorgeous subtlety. The towering middle movement was particularly glorious in its stillness. They offered an encore which again highlighted their ability to find drama in serenity. The third movement (Cantante e tranquillo) of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 16 was an exercise in the beauty of restraint.

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The University of Chicago’s Renaissance Society helped to mark the recent exhibition of photography by John Neff with a short concert in Bond Chapel, 1025 E. 58th St. The only work on the program was chosen by Neff himself: Jean Barraqué’s Piano Sonata (1952). Chicago pianist Winston Choi spoke about the work briefly before his performance, describing the piece as containing numerous short fragments which can be seen as shards of sound. He was particularly taken with Barraqué’s use of silence (which he found puzzling as well as intriguing) and noted that the effect is often akin to something bouncing around in a box.

Choi’s performance was crisp and comfortable. He easily drew angular lines and gracefully executed the flourishes. The good-sized crowd rewarded him with extended applause.

The Renaissance Society regularly offers free concerts, and I’ve had the pleasure to attend a few others this season. Earlier this year the Cube Contemporary Chamber Ensemble presented a concert with “The Ren” called “Hanging from the Edge”. It was bookended with Works by U. of C. composer Howard Sandroff. The work “untitled interactive improvisation” (credited to both Sandroff and Ben Sutherland) is a fascinating 2012 composition for steel sound sculpture, percussionist and computer. The two sculptures were welded steel and brass, and when a bow was moved along or against them, strange and compelling sounds were created. Sandroff’s “Tephillah” (1990) had a nice integration of instrument (clarinet, ably performed by Alejandro T. Acierto) and computer sounds.

The mid-concert fare included the world premiere of “Spiral Density” (2013) by Sarah J. Ritch. While the composer displayed an interesting graph as she spoke briefly about the work, it was the committed performance of Patricia Morehead on oboe which the audience will most remember. She expertly weaved her sound in and around the sometimes beepy electronics. Brava to Morehead, herself a composer, for such a carefully created performance of new music.

“Elegy” (1987) by Patricia Morehead was given a memorable reading by violist Michael Hall and pianist Philip Morehead. It was sad and powerful, steeped in pain. Hall was also soulful in Elliott Carter’s Figment IV for solo viola (2008), and “In Freundschaft” (1977) by Stockhausen was given virtuosic treatment by Acierto.

Even earlier in the season, Cube and The Ren presented “Red Rays,” a concert of works nestled around the title piece written in 2011 by Marta Ptaszynska. “Red Rays” premiered in Poland some months earlier, at an event honoring Marie Curie. Flutist Agata Igras-Sawicka performed both at the world premiere and here in Hyde Park at what was the American premiere. The work is energetic and penetrating with Igras-Sawicka offering a gleaming performance along with pianist Kuang-Hao Huang.