Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Indianapolis Quartet sounds supremely well-established in its second performance at its University of Indianapolis home

Curtain call: The Indianapolis Quartet at its debut last November.
Seen from the widest perspective, the Indianapolis Quartet's debut seems ages ago. It was as recent as the night before the national election, and here we are in what is surely a different world, reflecting on the University of Indianapolis-sponsored ensemble's second outing.

In November it had not been officially named; since then the simple city designation has been chosen, with the word "string" quietly dropped. Reaching the summit of attendance in UIndy's Faculty Concert Artist Series, the Indianapolis Quartet in its second concert packed the 500-seat  Lilly Performance Hall in the DeHaan Fine Arts Center.

The program was perfectly balanced. The sunniness of Haydn's "Lark" Quartet stood in for the foundation of the genre of music for two violins, viola, and cello. The dour mien of Shostakovich's compact Seventh (No. 7 in F-sharp minor) took us up to intermission. A combination of high spirits and brooding reflectiveness, set on a grand scale, occupied the concert's second half: Schubert's "Cello" Quintet in C major, nicknamed for its unusual employment of a second cello joining the string quartet. Mark Kosower, principal cellist in the Cleveland Orchestra, joined violinists Zachary De Pue and Austin Hartman, violist Michael Strauss, and cellist Austin Huntington for the performance.

This piece is hard to overpraise. I don't like lists of "greatest" this or that, but commentators that do tend to put this composition at the top. (Suggested latter-day supplement to a Cole Porter song: "You're the top, you're Dolly Levi's fellows; you're the top, you're Schubert's quintet with two cellos.")

In addition to its complexity of feeling and form, Schubert's opus 163 (Deutsch catalogue number 956) is the apotheosis of string chamber-music sound. The slow movement is inconceivable in any other medium: The impression of timelessness — suspension in the ether, ultimate sustaining power — could not be conveyed by any other instruments. An organ transcription might come close, but is boring to contemplate. Besides, all that first-violin filigree, phrases that oddly become profound because of their superficial tentativeness, would be leached of meaning if fluted through an organ stop.

The quintet in action Monday night, with IQ joined by Mark Kosower (center).
The Indianapolis Quartet, with the welcome addition of Kosower, captured nearly all the magic. First violinist De Pue made those phrases I just mentioned achingly moving in the Adagio. Perhaps the Schubert provided the basis for the concert's title "Secrets from the Masters," which is otherwise puzzling. Whatever anxiety in his final illness gripped the short-lived Austrian composer as he wrote, the music is pretty easy to understand. It does require lots of patience — from performers and audience alike. Maybe that's the big secret. Or maybe it lies in the very last two notes: a grinding half-step move downward in unison to the keynote. The conciseness of such a closing gesture means so much more coming after nearly 50 generously proportioned minutes.

The interpreters displayed the requisite poise. I felt the Allegretto launch of the finale was pushed a little bit at the beginning, but settled down once the second theme entered. The Viennese feel is essential to the movement; the tempo quickens twice toward the end, and that was exciting Monday night. In fact, each movement, for all its internal variety, has a distinctive  character. The Indianapolis Quartet was sensitive to such differences, and made the most of the long, conflicted Trio section of the Scherzo. One transitional passage in the finale seemed slightly uncoordinated, but otherwise the IQ men played like a long-established group.

That was evident immediately in the Haydn, which opened the concert. De Pue was fully equal to the piece's emphasis on first-violin display, especially in the first movement, which is responsible for the nickname "Lark." The internal rapport was confirmed in the transparent slow movement, with an abundance of well-turned, nicely arched phrases topped by De Pue's liquescent playing. The "hornpipe" finale caught up the four players in an exuberant dance that had the capacity crowd cheering right at the final flourish.

Shostakovich's exuberance was always shadowed, and there's not much even of that kind in his seventh quartet, written in 1959. Wildness in the finale, well-managed in this performance, seems less an effusion of high spirits and more an outpouring of the composer's memorial mood in a different form from the second-movement lament. (The piece is dedicated to the memory of the composer's first wife, who had died five years before.)

Without the extended techniques that became fashionable in modernist string-quartet writing, Shostakovich managed to juxtapose an astonishing variety of textures in this compact work. The Indianapolis Quartet put it all together expertly; rhythmic definition is particularly important to avoid muddying the busy layout, and that was consistently at a high level.

This ensemble has legs, for sure, and deserves to enjoy a long life.

[Photos by D. Todd Moore]