Julia Holter & Spektral Quartet — Images via sealevelmgmt.com & spektralquartet.com

Julia Holter & Spektral Quartet

Liquid Music Series
Amsterdam Bar & Hall

Now in its third season, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music series has built an impressive track record of bringing together artists from different backgrounds and disciplines and creating space for them to collaborate in ways that feel organic rather than forced. Such was definitely the case in Monday evening’s concert featuring art-pop singer-composer Julia Holter and the Spektral Quartet in a program of works that combined a surreal sort of lyricism with a fair dose of quirkiness.

The Spektral Quartet opened the concert with three short pieces featuring composers from their hometown of Chicago reinterpreting the work of other artists. First came Liza White’s Zin zin zin zin, an assertive piece based on rapper Mos Def’s scatting on The Roots’ song Double Trouble. Next up was Chris Fisher-Lochhead’s subtly haunting arrangement of singer-producer James Blake’s I Never Learnt to Share, with recurring bits of melody passed back and forth between the four musicians. This was followed by Dave Reminick’s Oh My God I’ll Never Get Home, a pointillist setting of a humorous poem by Russell Edson, recited by the musicians in sprechgesang style while playing. After sharing these three pieces, the quartet stepped back in time to give an intense and engaging performance of Igor Stravinsky’s 1920 Concertino.

After the Stravinsky, Holter joined the quartet for two of her own compositions. The first was a string arrangement of Memory Drew Her Portrait, which Holter originally composed for the LA Phil New Music Group in 2013. Appropriately enough for a chronicle of romantic obsession, the piece began in a hopeful character but gradually flattened out to a sort of maniacal resignation. Next came Marienbad, from Holter’s 2012 album Ekstasis, a tale of statutes contemplating what it is to be human.

The second half of the concert was dedicated to the premiere of Behind the Wallpaper, a cycle of ten songs (expanded from a previously premiered four) by another Chicago-based composer, Alex Temple. Her settings of original texts, focused on themes of public discomfort and physical transformation, contained hints of a wide range of genres and styles but were unified by a dreamy sensibility that was a perfect fit for Holter’s distinctive voice and the quartet’s attentive accompaniment.

One of the greatest strengths of the current generation of young classical composers is their willingness to test the boundaries of what “classical” vocal music is supposed to sound like. Holter may not sing in a traditional classical style, but in Monday’s concert she maintained incredible control over a voice that gave ideal expression to both Temple’s and her own writing. Meanwhile, in both the vocal and instrumental pieces, the Spektral Quartet demonstrated meticulous technique alongside a real zeal for the music they were performing. After Monday’s debut of this program in Saint Paul, Holter and the quartet will repeat it tonight as part of New York’s Ecstatic Music Festival and again tomorrow night in two performances in Chicago.

Spektral Quartet photo by Drew Reynolds

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.

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