Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Indianapolis Quartet offers Beethoven, Debussy, and a sneak preview of a Felice recording

A shrewdly assembled program, combined with a wholly committed performance of it, made for a satisfying outing by the Indianapolis Quartet as it moves into the new decade.

Butler University  presented the concert in its Eidson-Duckwall Recital Hall Tuesday evening. To start with, honor was paid to Ludwig van Beethoven in his quarter-millennial year — an obligation hardly any classical musician or organization will dare overlook in 2020.

By now, this ensemble, formed at the University of Indianapolis in  2016, has settled into a high level of internal rapport; confidence at both the macro and the micro levels tends to result. The players are violinists Zachary Depue and Joana Genova, violist Michael Strauss, and cellist Austin Huntington. To choose No. 5 (A major) of Beethoven's Opus 18 placed the concert on an inviting plane, because the work unfolds in an uncomplicated manner, sufficiently inventive — especially in the Andante cantabile movement, a theme-and-variations — while retaining unity of effect and style.

The acoustics at Eidson-Duckwall are quite acute, which requires conscientious attention to softer dynamic levels to keep them from buttonholing the audience. In Beethoven, gentle phrases are often inflected with sudden accents (sforzandos), such as those that make the Trio of the minuet stand out, as though a graceful but slightly lead-footed dancer had taken the floor. The Indianapolis Quartet deserves credit for putting the work's milder phrases into just enough prominence, as in the closing measures of the last movement, avoiding the way the hall consistently invites excessive energy.

The Indianapolis Quartet continues to make its mark on the local scene.
The straightforward charm of the A major quartet and its rootedness in the classical style offered a piquant comparison with Debussy's String Quartet in G minor, which occupied the concert's second half. Also relatively early in its composer's output, the Frenchman's sole exercise in the genre has formal links to the tradition that Beethoven advanced so thoroughly in his sixteen string quartets.

Debussy's provocative writing on music includes a fair amount of respect for Beethoven, particularly when it comes to the value of upsetting musical apple carts. In an area where he was prolific, he felt competitive with the German master, dismissing the latter's keyboard music as "badly written for the piano." But Debussy's string quartet looks forward to the peculiar strain of modernism that he blazed trails toward, and he never felt called upon to return to it as he pitched more than a few pommes himself.

There was much that was admirable about the Indianapolis Quartet's performance, but my take on almost all of Debussy is that its passion is always slightly cool, its dissonances more a matter of atmosphere and not quite so crunchy and rhetorically significant as in the Austro-German tradition.

Distancing himself from romanticism seems to me to have been a constant preoccupation of Debussy, and at times Tuesday's performance had a little too much "bite" in the articulation and prioritized vigor over nuance. There was a light touch in the second movement that was thoroughly idiomatic, and the recitative-like passages in the third movement were quite beguiling, particularly from the viola. The surges and relaxations of tempo in the finale were astutely managed. All in all, it was an exciting performance whose stresses are certainly signaled in the score, yet I inferred an attempt by the musicians to set the Debussy up as a big, emotionally loaded statement in contrast to the Beethoven. It was a justifiable choice especially from a programming standpoint — just not a totally convincing one interpretively.

Mitigating the contrast was a new piece by Butler composer Frank Felice, a setting of Psalm 16 for mezzo-soprano and string quartet, "Preserve Me, O God."  The mood swings of the biblical psalms have long been a welcome playground for composers. Felice adeptly covers Psalm 16's changes of direction from simple piety to rage against false gods and their followers, then back to celebration of the inheritance of true faith and its blessings. Mitzi Westra, the composer's wife and a favorite local singer for many concertgoers, gave a stirring account of the text, lovingly shaped and generously supported by the string quartet. The work will be featured among others on a forthcoming recording of Felice chamber music featuring strings on Enharmonic Records.

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