Saturday, April 21, 2018

In UIndy concert of "firsts," Indianapolis Quartet continues to assert its superiority in local chamber music

IQ: Zachary De Pue, Joana Genova, Austin Huntington, and Michael Strauss
The soft-spoken title of the Indianapolis Quartet's concert Monday night — "Firsts" — refers to the first (and in one case the only) example of three composers' contributions to the string-quartet genre.

Also, the group is at the end of its first season with the current personnel: Zachary De Pue and Joana Genova, violins; Michael Isaac Strauss, viola; Austin Huntington, cello. The musicians gave plenty of evidence they have coalesced as an artistic unit in a program of works by Beethoven, Shostakovich, and Debussy.

To take up the hardest piece first: Claude Debussy's sole contribution to the string-quartet repertoire is a masterpiece that has his unique signature all over it; it occupied the second half of the performance in the DeHaan Fine Arts Center at the University of Indianapolis, the quartet's home. Cohesive though the Debussy quartet is, it takes up and satisfies novel notions about form. Development becomes more a matter of turning the prism variously so that colors and rhythms undergo energizing shifts of emphasis. These musicians displayed the kind of insights needed.

A quartet of individually expert players needs extraordinary rapport in the Debussy:  In the first movement, the variety of this group's approach to the theme was assured in both texture and color. And there was a fine sense of drama imparted to the material. The second movement was keyed to the singing tone of Strauss' viola, playing against a sparkling pizzicato backdrop.

The third movement gave the most striking indication of the Indianapolis Quartet's interpretive skill.
The Indianapolis Quartet in action on the stage of Ruth Lilly Performance Hall.
It's all too easy to make this music a kind of stroll through a parfumerie; this performance favored what could be called a rhetorical sweetness rather than the decorative kind. It was well put together; it stressed how much this movement has to say and how cogently it says it. The finale set a seal upon this intelligent approach.

Of the three works on the program, Shostakovich's first quartet sounds the most like a composer's initiation into writing for two violins, viola, and cello. Not that there's anything inexpert about it; the Russian had made his mark at 19 with his first symphony. He was a little late getting around to the string quartet a dozen years later. His op. 49 in C major is straightforward in expression and form, not touched by the sardonic humor under which he sometimes signaled his difficulties with the Soviet regime.

The performance was above-board in every respect, nicely paced especially in the folkish, marchlike progress of the second movement. The trouble-free atmosphere characteristic of the whole was reinforced by the finale, as the quartet unstintingly put across the piece's high spirits.

Beethoven's op. 18, no. 1 in F major got the concert under way. Accents and pauses were well-coordinated in the opening Allegro. The new foursome's gift for dynamic contrast was on full display. At the louder end of the spectrum, no fraying of the sound popped into view; on the quiet side, the hush was unanimously evident when called for. The trenchant brio the quartet gave to the finale represented the assertive young composer with distinction.

If the Indianapolis Quartet is able to secure frequent opportunities to play together, it is likely to flourish for as long as it can retain the same personnel,  getting ever more used to one another as they explore the vast string-quartet repertoire.