Review: Spektral Quartet’s Enigma at Adler Planetarium Was So-So

To this music aficionado, few things are more disappointing than going to a performance, expecting to be blown away, wanting to be blown away--but ending up walking away and thinking, "Huh?"

That's what I experienced at Adler Planetarium, where Spektral Quartet performed Enigma, a work they commissioned from composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir and released on CD last fall. Billed as a 360-degree video experience inspired by the solar eclipse of 2017, Enigma set Thorvaldsdottir's piece to a video by Sigurður Guðjónsson that was projected onto the dome of Adler’s Grainger Sky Theater. Spektral Quartet gave two performances and showings of Enigma on Thursday and Friday evening. I saw the first show on Thursday.

The entry to Grainger Theater set the mood. Photo by Louis Harris.

Setting music with a video in a planetarium sounded cool and awesome, like the laser light shows set to rock and classical music I saw at Longway Planetarium, where I grew up in Flint, Michigan. I was also looking forward to seeing something tied to the solar eclipse in 2017, for which I traveled to St. Louis to experience.

Adding to Friday's anticipation was interesting décor in the Grainger Sky Theater's entryway, which had geometric patterns and vaults covered in fabric washed in dim, eerie lighting. From there, a tunnel led into the theater, which was lit with dim lights that shifted between green and lavender.

Musically, Enigma is an exceptional use of 30 minutes. It starts with rhythmic sound effects on the instruments' fret boards, bridges, and plucked strings. Soon, long-held notes and overtones back up the sound effects giving the piece a drone effect. With the Grainger's amplification, overtones and flaring sounds from the stringed instruments sounded like woodwinds.

Enigma from the dome. Photo by Louis Harris.

The drone continues as notes gradually change, and the chords shifted in fascinating ways. Sometimes they are made up of notes separated by half tone creating a spooky dissonance. In others, they were tonal and soothing. In places, the piece had the sounds and effects of an industrial waterfront, with steam and whistles permeating everything. Eventually, a few rapid melodic passages came through.

Enigma is a perfect vehicle for the members of the Spektral Quartet to show off their enormous talent, as individual players and as an ensemble. This being their last season together, their absence will certainly be missed. I wish them the best of luck in their next chapter.

Total Solar Eclipse 8-21-2017, as viewed from St. Louis, Missouri. Photo by Louis Harris.

The disappointment came from the video. The color in the entryway and theater prior to the actual performance was the last color anyone saw, as Sigurður Guðjónsson only used a black, white, and gray palette. As Enigma started, the video broadcast swirling patterns on the Grainger Theater's dome. The images reminded me of gaseous clouds, foamy surf, and magnified cells swimming around a petri dish.

It was a fascinating start, but the images projected in the first minute changed only slightly over the next 29. Subtle changes in the music were not obviously reflected in the video. Neither was there a discernible representation of a solar eclipse. If there were, I didn't get it. Nor were Grainger's astronomical capabilities on display. Unlike the laser light shows I saw at Longway Planetarium, these visual images could have been shown anywhere. Color would certainly have helped.

Musically, Enigma was a rich experience. Visually, it didn't work for me. I love it when ensembles experiment. This time, it left me wanting. Images of Enigma can be found 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. Member of the Music Critics Association of North America.