Tuesday, November 8, 2016

On Election Eve, a new string quartet makes a splash worthy of a campaign rally

Michael Strauss, Zach DePue, Austin Hartman, Austin Huntington.
Everywhere you look, current events seem to have raised ordinary life to fever pitch. If you haven't noticed, good luck at being released from that persistent vegetative state you must be in.

The excitement carried over to a concert at the University of Indianapolis Monday night. The occasion was the debut of a new string quartet (announced from the stage of the Lilly Performance Hall in DeHaan Fine Arts Center as "the Indianapolis String Quartet" before the musicians took the stage, but a permanent name has yet to be chosen).

The highly charged political atmosphere may have an analogy in music's parallel universe. Any echo of that energy in the packed concert hall can be attributed to the professional stature of the new ensemble (Zachary DePue and Austin Hartman, violins; Michael Strauss, viola; Austin Huntington, cello) and how well it delivered on the eager anticipation of so many people, including the university that's sponsoring it.

Orli Shaham was attentive and nuanced in the Brahms Piano Quintet.
Focusing first on the concert's second half, I can't resist noticing aspects of Johannes Brahms' Quintet in F minor for Piano and Strings that strike chords in the political tumult climaxing today. For this masterwork, the "ISQ" was joined by Orli Shaham, a pianist as sensitive, insightful and collegially nimble as her violinist brother Gil, last weekend's Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra guest artist.

I hope the parallelism doesn't seem strained, but I'll home in on the opening movement of this masterpiece and consider how our political dilemmas relate to Brahms' secure but not impregnable status as one of the supreme masters of music. This Allegro non troppo is a superior example of Brahms' gift for organizing musical ideas to a fare-thee-well. Every detail serves the composer's overall plan. These musicians played the movement in full recognition of that fact. The structure is airtight; nothing is wasted.

At the same time, Brahms the man was massively repressed. He bore an excess of emotional baggage, which he subjected to exquisite control in his music. His work is an expression of an ideal not everyone accepts: the virtue of taming one's desires and putting them to work in well-crafted form. To me, this sheds light on a certain musician's Facebook post and commentary I read a few days back that included the proposition that Brahms is more fun to play than listen to.

Seen in political terms, Brahms endures because his music matches the hope that individuals and societies alike can put their passions in harness to well-considered craftsmanship. What moves the wagon forward then is something that both works practically and satisfies the emotions. There are no loose threads. Recast in today's political terms, Brahms promises to make music great again and insists we are stronger together. 

In "Brahms the Progressive," Arnold Schoenberg states the ideal like this: "A transition, a codetta, an elaboration, etc. should not be considered as a thing in its own end. It should not appear at all if it does not develop, modify, intensify, clarify, or throw light or color on the idea of the piece."

Brahms achieves this in many works, relying largely on his skills as the foremost post-Classical contrapuntalist and master of variation form. Both counterpoint and variation are aspects of music that have to be fully accountable in order to succeed. But Brahms' emphasis on such values, applied elaborately and consistently, drives some people crazy. They see a composer who presents massive blank walls, solid and demanding to be admired. And they balk.

Mighty critics as captious as George Bernard Shaw and B.H. Haggin have disdained
Johannes Brahms: Political parallels?
him. The French traditionally have a problem with Brahms. Though he may not have been thinking specifically of Brahms, Claude Debussy made a quip about the tradition the German worked in to the effect that "oh, here comes the development: I can go out for a smoke." 


In Brahms, no detail is left stranded. Everything is developed. No wonder Condoleezza Rice, a formerly well-placed technocrat and competent musician, loves Brahms above all other composers. George W. Bush's secretary of state has played the Brahms Piano Quintet with professionals for an audience including Queen Elizabeth. The New York Times once quoted a violinist colleague of hers calling it "Condi's piece."

On Election Eve, the UIndy audience seemed ready to acquiesce to its message that contentious forces can be reconciled through mastery of structure. The "ISQ" and Shaham fashioned a reading of great tenderness and variety, serious as all get-out when it needed to be, exuberantly driven when appropriate, and fully responsive to that summit of Brahmsiness, the Allegro non troppo. If only we could work together like these five people on such a project, many listeners were perhaps musing, just think what we could achieve.

Before I let go of politics, mention must be made of the quartet's encore. Violist Strauss introduced the slow movement of Dvorak's F-major quartet ("American"), op. 96, with a reference to the election, placing its composer as representing both "indigenous and non-indigenous" aspects of the country he was visiting when he wrote it. 

The new UIndy string quartet bears down Monday night at DeHaan.
Nicknames are a vexed matter in music; most did not come from the composer. Dvorak's "American" is a case in point, and commentators have pointed out tuneful similarities between the music of black Americans and white Bohemians. That throws into question the former influence that's sentimentally attached to the work, particularly the melody so piercingly rendered near the movement's end by cellist Huntington. But I was reminded of another political and social burden in the history of this "American" work, and of America itself: Do you know what its nickname used to be, conveyed so recently as in the 1954 Grove Dictionary of Music? The "Nigger" Quartet. Maybe an Englishman supplied it. But we Yanks are not off the hook on racial matters, are we?

Now we can put politics entirely aside. The rest of the program consisted of Alberto Ginastera's bracing, unquestionably Argentinian String Quartet No. 1, op. 20, and Felix Mendelssohn's last chamber-music work, the String Quartet No. 6 in F minor, op. 20. The intensity and pathos in which the latter is steeped, uncharacteristic of the facile genius of its composer, was nicely represented by the new ensemble. Transitions between sadly tender and agitated episodes in the first movement displayed the elan of a much more experienced quartet. Dynamics were well-coordinated throughout the spectrum in the third movement, especially. 

Ginastera's 1948 work had the flavor of his homeland's pampas, particularly in the rhythmic profile of the first two movements, reminiscent of the finale of "Variaciones concertantes." They are immensely contrasted, however, by the lightening of texture in the second movement, Vivacissimo, which was played with delicate and precise coloring. The eerie stasis and shifting light and shadow of the third movement betrayed the positive influence of Bela Bartok's "night music."
Again, the account had the maturity of a more seasoned ensemble.

In sum, the "ISQ" ought to have a great future. There was evident unanimity of interpretive ideas Monday night. What seems to be the main thing it needs to develop is better balance when there's lots of independence in the four parts, especially in the middle of the dynamic range. Its soft playing was thoroughly blended, and the general unity of chordal attack and release was gratifying. The men had clearly brought their "A" game to a challenging program. And the audience exulted in it.

[Photos by D. Todd Moore]