Review: Kontras Quartet’s Premier of Amy Wurtz’ Third String Quartet Is Worth the COVID-19 Wait

The Chicago-based Kontras Quartet performed several string quartets by American composers at Roosevelt University’s Ganz Hall yesterday. Hosted by the American Music Project, the program included works by five contemporary composers, including the world premiere of Amy Wurtz’ String Quartet No. 3. This was the American Music Project’s first live, in-person performance since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Formed in 2009 by the principal string players of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, the Kontras Quartet includes Eleanor Bartsch on first violin, François Henkins on second violin, Ben Weber on viola, and Jean Hatmaker on cello. The Kontras has a wide-ranging repertoire spanning the centuries, from Haydn to the present day. As Hatmaker explained from the stage, the Kontras Quartet enjoys performing rarely heard American music that the American Music Project facilitates.  

The concert opened with Philip Glass’ String Quartet No. 2, Company. It’s taken me 40 years to gain an appreciation for Glass, but now that I have one, this string quartet has it all. It opens with the usual churning sounds one typically hears in his music on the three—second violin, viola, and cello—while the first violin makes gentle, long notes over the top. Eleanor Bartsch blended with the other instruments perfectly, never standing out, but still clearly heard. When it was the cello’s turn to play that role, Jean Hatmaker did the same. They were able to create a tender aural fabric that seems unusual for Glass. In the finale, they showed excellent dynamic range between quiet and loud passages.

Kontras Quartet performs Philip Glass’ String Quartet No. 2 Company at Ganz Concert Hall at Roosevelt University. Photo by Anne Ryan-American Music Project.

Up next was the Third String Quartet by Vincent Persichetti, a 20th century composer who taught Philip Glass at Juilliard. This work offered the Kontras a wealthy opportunity to show off excellent technique. This came out in several places: their delicate approach to the first slow section, the muted passages when the first violin played over the other players’ pizzicato plucks, and frolicking moments where all four instruments went bonkers together. The only performance downside was a very slight waver by violist Ben Weber on the very last note.

There were several exciting moments in the Persichetti. However, this music is steeped in atonal dissonance without any rest and relaxation. It seemed like an academic exercise of how long one can go without a single moment of consonance. Maybe I would enjoy this piece after a few more listens, but, even with a good performance, it did not work for me on Sunday.

Amy Wurtz’ COVID-delayed third string quartet is worth the wait. Photo by Alain Milotti.

Things improved in the second half, starting with Sacred Traces by John Elmquist, who was in the audience. This work was written for the Kontras Quartet, and it suits them perfectly. It opens with wild chords formed by the players sliding up and down their fingerboards and soon resolves into fun and frolic. The music switches back and forth between the two sounds, and the Kontras handled the transitions wonderfully. The overall effect was dreamy.

This was followed by the first two out of four pieces from Spiritual Fantasy No. 12 for string quartet, by the Black American composer Frederick C. Tillis. While both pieces were enjoyable, I especially liked “Wade in the Water,” which applied a samba rhythm to the African American spiritual song. Kontras’ sound pulsated throughout, even during the moments where each instrument had the main melody.

The concert ended with the world premiere of Chicago composer Amy Wurtz’ String Quartet No. 3. Like so many other recent compositions from just about every composer, this work got caught up in the COVID-19 pandemic. Commissioned in 2018 by the American Music Project, it was supposed to be premiered in 2020, until the shutdown delayed things. It was worth the wait.  

Kontras Quartet performs Vincent Persichetti’s Third String Quartet at Ganz Concert Hall at Roosevelt University. Photo by Anne Ryan-American Music Project.

Wurtz’ third string quartet bears considerable similarity to Persichetti’s. Both are longer works played without interruption. Both have many sections with different tempi and time signatures that blend into one another. Both end with a long note played by one instrument (in this case on first violin, where Bartsch was a bit better). However, as is typical of Wurtz’ music, this piece has a nice blend between tonality and atonality. Phrases often start with dissonant tension but end in consonant serenity. On the whole, I found the Wurtz quartet far more enjoyable than the Persichetti.

Wurtz creates nice dramatic effects with long rests, which was most effective when one section of romp suddenly stopped. She also uses counterpoint very effectively, which allowed the Kontras to display nice interplay between the instruments. One noteworthy passage was when second violinist François Henkins played off violist Ben Weber.

Kontras Quartet will be performing a free concert tomorrow evening, as part of the Rush Hour Concert series hosted by the International Music Foundation. The completely different program includes Florence Price’ String Quartet No. 2. Tuesday, June 7, at St. James Cathedral, 65 E. Huron; doors open at 5pm and pre-talk begins at 5:15 with the concert starting at 5:45pm. The event will be live-streamed through the International Music Foundation website. When available, information about future American Music Project events 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.