Bruce Hodges hears the performance of Haydn, Stacy Garrop and Ravel at the Black Squirrel Club, Philadelphia, on 30 March 2024


Tesla Quartet. Photo: Titilayo Ayangade

Given that the word ‘chamber’ in chamber music implies options other than traditional concert halls an unusual venue is to be welcomed. In this case, the headliner was the Black Squirrel Club, a steam plant from the 1890s in Fishtown, one of Philadelphia’s grittier neighbourhoods. To inaugurate a series of three evenings in the space, conductor and vocalist Micah Gleason chose the intrepid Tesla Quartet.

The party began with a high-spirited take on Haydn’s String Quartet op.33 no.2, ‘The Joke’, given appropriate rusticity in the initial movement. In the final Presto, the foursome summoned up superb comic timing that coaxed a laugh out of many in the audience.

Stacy Garrop’s Fourth String Quartet, ‘Illuminations’ (2011), takes inspiration from the landmark medieval book The Hours of Catherine of Cleves. It’s a virtuosic set of five scenes from the book, ranging from the furious rhythms of ‘The Mouth of Hell’ to the intense love in the finale, ‘Trinity Enthroned’. The challenges it posed only proved the Tesla players to be unstoppable.

Last, Ravel’s String Quartet, which gained new insights from contrasts: the composer’s heightened colours blooming against the room’s towering brick walls and factory-style windows. For a rapt audience, seated on the club’s vintage church pews, the results were vividly projected – and as comforting as an embrace from an old friend.