Tuesday, October 3, 2017

With one change of personnel and a distinguished guest, the Indianapolis Quartet opens its second season in residence at UIndy

The Indianapolis Quartet, with clarinetist Todd Palmer, performed at UIndy.
Any accomplished clarinetist today has ample reason to be grateful to a couple of distant, distinguished predecessors on the instrument. They can rightly feel they know Richard M├╝hlfeld and Anton Stadler through the masterpieces by Johannes Brahms and Wolfgang Mozart, respectively, that each clarinetist inspired.

For the centerpiece of a season-opening concert in the Faculty Artist Series at the University of Indianapolis, the Indianapolis Quartet welcomed the protean master clarinetist Todd Palmer for a performance of Mozart's Quintet in A major for Clarinet and Strings, K. 581.

Stadler was a close friend and Masonic lodge brother during Mozart's productive Vienna decade. He was also somewhat of a nag seeking loans from the composer, who until the end was a little shaky on money matters. What are friends for? Putting that aside, Stadler was a master musician whose gifts drew from Mozart not only the supernal Clarinet Concerto but the work played by Palmer and the quartet Monday night in Lilly Performance Hall, DeHaan Fine Arts Center.

The performance presented the piece in bold profile. Gustav Mahler sometimes put the word "keck" in his scores, an indication that he wanted "cheeky" or "fresh" playing where indicated. That's the sort of clarinetist Palmer seemed to be, though this is not to say it was the only attribute he brought to the music. Stadler must have been "keck" himself, so this characteristic of Palmer's applies fully to the score.

It was evident in the genial five-way partnership in the first movement, and particularly in the lively dialogue between first violinist Zachary De Pue and Palmer just before a reflective episode in the work's finale. The quintet imparted a folk-like casualness to the third movement Menuetto that never got sloppy. It was whimsical but well-controlled. It was keck.

Other high points in the Mozart work: In the second movement, Larghetto, the ensemble managed to impart lots of weightiness to its phrasing without drooping. The slowing tempo at the end was marvelously unified. The dynamic control throughout was exemplary. One other detail: Michael Isaac Strauss' playing of the variation for viola in the finale sounded especially expressive and heartfelt and timely, the Day of Atonement having been last weekend. Or maybe it was simply the most stirring representation on the program of the fact the concert had been dedicated to victims of Sunday's Las Vegas massacre.

The Indianapolis Quartet, with Joana Genova making her local debut as second violinist (cellist Austin Huntington is the fourth member), opened the program with Beethoven's Quartet in G major, op. 18, no. 2. It was a brisk yet well-grounded performance, capped by a blithe Scherzo and a finale that opened with the lightest of touches and throughout gave free rein to the "quasi Presto" indication. Not all the violins' eight-note groups of thirty-second notes in the first-movement theme were as clear as they ought to have been. This isn't a matter of nit-picking about ornamentation, since the figure is an essential part of the movement's "personality." Otherwise the rendition sounded shipshape.

After intermission came Brahms' String Quartet in A minor, op. 51, no. 2. It provided significant contrasts with the concert's first half: those thundering unisons, the pedal points, the "orchestral" textures (especially in the middle part of the second movement), the self-conscious classicism.

The quartet moved well together through the Brahmsian thickets. I was particularly struck by the haunted quality of the third movement, where the composer draws on that peculiar Black Forest atmosphere of German romanticism in a manner suggestive of his friend Schumann or the Weber of "Der Freisch├╝tz." Capturing this so well was among many ways the concert confirmed the great boon to local music that the Indianapolis Quartet seems fit to provide.

[Photo by Cathy Rossi]