Thursday, November 8, 2018

Combined presentation: Michelangelo String Quartet visits, bringing back 1982 IVCI gold medalist

Michelangelo Quartet was founded in 2002.
Every seat filled in the Basile Theater of the Glick Indiana History Center is no surprise when it comes to a combined presentation such as the Ensemble Music Society and the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis offered Wednesday night. Both have large, loyal audiences on their own, so their collaboration can be expected to work such wonders.

Bringing the two venerable organizations together was the appearance of the Michelangelo String Quartet, featuring an IVCI laureate from the inaugural contest in 1982: Gold medalist Mihaela Martin in the first violin chair. Her usual colleagues are also on the faculty of the Kronberg Academy. Second violinist Daniel Austrich, sidelined by illness, was replaced by Kronberg student Stephen Waarts, who was an IVCI semifinalist in 2014. The ensemble's other members are Nobuko Imai, viola, and Frans Helmerson, cello.

Stephen Waarts filled in for Daniel Austrich.
One of the most popular quartets from the Classical period — Haydn's No. 5 in D major, op.64 ("The Lark") — opened the concert. The foundational era of the genre tended to spotlight the first violin, so Martin's vigorous, persuasive account of the first-movement melody that gives the work its nickname  was immediately showcased. The more restrained Adagio was nicely shadowed, and the balanced presentation by all four players was confirmed in the forceful, zesty minuet movement.

My almost late arrival required sitting in the front row, an unprecedented experience for me. Certainty about the group's blend and balance cannot be confidently stated. Thus, what I've said so far and what's to follow is an attempt to account for being so close. That also means compensating imaginatively for the impression that four instruments made upon me more separately than is usually the case.

I was struck by the vivid emotional impact that Smetana's Quartet No. 1 in E minor ("From My Life") had on me — perhaps in part a function of my proximity to the players. There was heart-stopping poignancy to the Michelangelo's playing of the third movement, Largo sostenuto. What preceded it had been gripping enough, with the only sustained high spirits outlined in the second movement, Allegro moderato a la Polka.

I found the opening movement somewhat akin to a serious biographical essay more than impassioned autobiography; it was well laid-out, but the emotional force behind the music seemed to be taking a while to jell. Fortunately, any emotional neutrality was swept away definitively by the  finale, with its graphic indication of the composer's sudden deafness (signaled by the tinnitus suggestion of a sustained note in harmonics from the first violin).

After intermission came the stylistically diverse tapestry of Bartok's Quartet No. 1 in A minor.  The slow first movement made a cohesive impression, despite indications of the young composer's attempts to find musical terrain he could lay claim to,  while at the same time emphasizing the independence of the Michelangelo's four voices. A suspenseful transition, unbroken, to the accelerating second movement was dramatically dispatched. The finale brought its firmly outlined folk-music elements to the fore; the ensemble's performance was bright, well-coordinated and appropriately textured.

Called back for an encore, the group presented the slow movement of Dvorak's Quartet in F major ("American") with attention to its many hints of homesickness and receptivity to foreign surroundings that are characteristic of all the Bohemian composer's works from his U.S. sojourn.

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