Tuesday, October 2, 2018

UIndy's Indianapolis Quartet adds two guests for performance of a milestone sextet

In 1964, I took my small collection of classical LPs to Kalamazoo College to play from time to time
Indianapolis Quartet: Huntington, DePue, Genova, and Strauss.
on my record player. One of them was a recording of Arnold Schoenberg's "Transfigured Night." I not only loved it for itself, but also for the bridge I interpreted it to be back to the 19th century. My adolescent tastes focused on the 18th and 20th centuries: I had heard too much Chopin and Rimsky-Korsakov on my mother's stereo.

So imagine the thrill of hearing the 1899 sextet in concert for the first time Monday night, more than a half-century after I came to love the recording.  That guaranteed that the Indianapolis Quartet's appearance on University of Indianapolis Faculty Artist Series would be a red-letter day on my schedule. And the ensemble's performance, with the addition of violist Atar Arad and cellist Eric Kim, never disappointed.

A nearly unprecedented example of program music for a chamber ensemble, "Verklärte Nacht" traces a poem by Richard Dehmel more through emotional than narrative development. It's a conversation between two lovers on a moonlight walk. She confesses that she is carrying another man's child. He says that his love for her will transfigure the threatening unfaithfulness scenario into a higher plane, and they will raise the child together.

Soon to establish a musical revolution, at 25 Schoenberg had absorbed the late-romantic language, largely self-taught and heavily influenced by the Wagner of "Tristan und Isolde." The remarkably fluid yet unified sextet pushes out from the stability of tonality. At the dawn of the 20th century, the Austrian composer was to work toward a way of structuring music without key centers, eventually systematizing. You can hear the shifts in constant motion, an insightful  representation of the challenging terrain the poem's lovers have to negotiate.

I've always liked how much there is going on from moment to moment in this piece. There is a wealth of contrapuntal interplay among the six musicians, but it serves purposes far beyond academic design. Any hierarchy of voices, though pronounced, is temporary; the Indianapolis and its guests fashioned a balanced reading. It was moving and well-defined,  never woozy.

In the program's first half, another far-seeing composer was represented by a quartet from his young maturity: Beethoven's Op. 18, No. 4 in C minor. The expressive contrasts in the first movement are remarkable, and the Indianapolis Quartet made the most of them. The honeyed allure of the second theme was set against the earnestness of the main material, an exercise of serious business in one of the composer's signature keys (shared by the  Fifth Symphony and the Third Piano Concerto).

In the second movement, the quartet was scrupulous about similarly articulating the many short phrases they shared. These four (Zachary DePue, Joana Genova, violins; Michael Isaac Strauss, viola; Austin Huntington, cello) have clearly developed an unshakable musical rapport. Periodic releases of tension were nicely judged. In the minuet third movement, the last reappearance of the main material had an effective ghostly cast. The finale, launched and sustained capably lickety-split, ought to have been taken a bit slower: The ratcheting up to Prestissimo near the end was almost imperceptible, because the main tempo had already put the musicians near the edge.

A diffuse but appealing quartet from the late 1990s filled out the program. Robert Paterson's String Quartet No. 1 ("Love Boat") was marked by ample drollery and stylistic breadth. The second movement, titled "Logy," had the most outsize showmanship, with its evocation of a country-fiddling porch jam session, opening with Strauss' vigorous strumming. Genova and Huntington sailed into a sentimental waltz, and soon DePue was playing the composer's interrupting mother. The programmatic content was affectionate and high-spirited. The remainder of the piece varied in interest: the slow movement wallowed somewhat, but the finale gathered the quartet's forces effectively to deliver a pastiche of polka and personality.