Review: The Bernard Rands Effect Was Highly Effective

To celebrate the 88th birthday of distinguished Chicago composer and Pulitzer Prize winner Bernard Rands, the Spektral Quartet performed nine world premieres at Constellation on Pi day, Monday night, 3/14. For a program entitled The Bernard Rands Effect, eight members of the Chicago Composers’ Consortium composed new, short works for string quartet—all based on a new work by Rands, his fourth composition for this medium.

This concept bears striking similarities to the traditional classical musical construct of theme with variations. However, instead of an eight or 16 measure theme, Rands’ work is a short but complete piece; the eight other pieces were composed around features found in Rands’ piece. The contributing composers were Kyoung Mee Choi, Martha Horst, Kathleen Cecilia Ginther, Timothy Dwight Edwards, Elizabeth Start, Lawrence Axelrod, and Laura Schwendinger. All but Choi and Axelrod were present on Monday.

The Bernard Rands Effect program. Drawing by Tom Bachtell.

Rands’ work, simply entitled String Quartet Music, is based on a 4-note motif. It offered an interesting juxtaposition of quick melodic flourishes, sliding on the fingerboard, pizzicato, and moving chords. Rands takes that motif, extends it, inverts it, and shortens it. String Quartet Music has a continuous forward momentum with subtle shifts between tonal and atonal sounds. Rands has worked with and mentored the Spektral Quartet over the years. This collaboration was a natural fit for composer and ensemble, and the Spektral Quartet’s interactive abilities kept the discussion between the instruments tight and seamless.

Performing the following eight pieces in pairs, members of the Spektral Quartet described each piece and identified how they related to String Quartet Music. First up was Choi’s Falling Leaves and Horst’s Rabbit Hole, both of which took a run of 16 notes toward the end String Quartet Music in different directions. Ginther’s quartetto in ombra explored the 4-note motif, sometimes lengthening it. One apparent flaw in the performance took place at the end where the long notes fluctuated somewhat. There were a few occasions when their unison phrasing wasn’t precise in sounding some chords. All very minor.

The Bernard Rands Effect ended in celebration, complete with a pie for Pi day. Photo by Louis Harris.

Edward’s With Pause for Reflection and Start’s In Conclusions, which was my favorite, were more dance like, while Johnson’s For the Love of Home focused on the many subtly different chords found in Rands’ piece. Axelrod’s Meditation on a Theme of Bernard Rands had a nice mixture of pizzicato and chords, and Schwendinger’s una breve canzone sensa parole used slow melodies in counterpoint over shimmering tremolos. Following comments by Rands himself, Spektral ended the music making with a return to String Quartet Music.

As with so many other situations in this era of an unpredictable pandemic, this concert had to be rescheduled due to COVID-19 circumstances. Rands’ 88th actual birthday was a couple of weeks ago, but the celebration was lively nevertheless, complete with a cake.

Sadly, last November the Spektral Quartet announced that this is their final season together. They do have a couple events lined up in Chicago, including ENIGMA—a 360-degree video experience at Adler Planetarium. It features the music of Anna Thorvaldsdottir set to a 360-degree video by Sigurdur Gudjonsson. Based on the 2017 solar eclipse, the video will all be projected onto Adler’s Grainger Sky Theater. There will be four performances over two days, April 7 and 8. For tickets, click here.

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Louis Harris

A lover of music his whole life, Louis Harris has written extensively from the early days of punk and alternative rock. More recently he has focused on classical music, especially chamber ensembles. He has reviewed concerts, festivals, and recordings and has interviewed composers and performers. He has paid special attention to Chicago’s rich and robust contemporary art music scene. He occasionally writes poetry and has a published novel to his credit, 32 Variations on a Theme by Basil II in the Key of Washington, DC. He now lives on the north side of Chicago, which he considers to be the greatest city in the country, if not the world.

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