To this New Yorker, Indiana is one of those mysterious in-between places. You might fly over it, or even drive through it. But what’s really there? I know just a few things. A certain Vice President and a groundbreaking recent presidential candidate call it home. Indianapolis has that big car race I used to watch on TV when I was a kid. And the state gave us one of our greatest songwriters, John Hiatt. Besides that, I know practically nothing.
Now, lo and behold, arrives the Indianapolis Quartet for a concert of new, romantic, and classical music, including a world premiere by Robert Paterson, at Carnegie Hall‘s Weill Recital Hall. And suddenly Indianapolis gains a dimension for me.
Now, whether you’re in the Midwest, Gotham City, or anywhere else, the music of Claude Debussy never seems to go out of style. It’s true, listening to too much of his late piano music at one time can wear me out. But hearing chamber pieces like his String Quartet in G minor, with which the Indianapolis Quartet closed the evening, or the Violin Sonata in the same key, which I heard last week at another concert, can be expected to be an unalloyed pleasure. The Indianapolis’s program also included Robert Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, with pianist Drew Petersen, and a set of short playful pieces by Frank Felice, who, like Robert Paterson, was in attendance.
I had come mostly for the world premiere of Paterson’s String Quartet No. 3. But the whole evening was, among other things, a joyous introduction to an ensemble I’d never heard before.
Felice’s “Five Whimsies for Non-Grownups” acted as curtain-raiser. Charged with spontaneous spirit, it was inspired by whimsical quotes from children’s books by Maurice Sendak, Dr. Seuss and others (even J.R.R. Tolkien). The opening piece is a cheery dance with cascading melodies over a pulsing rhythm. The less playful second offers sparkling cinematic drama with dissonant squeals that flow together and make their own kind of sense, ending with an irresolute passage of questioning pizzicato. Next gallops in an animated clash of contrapuntal chatter, played with zest and charm. The musicians were clearly having a lot of fun with this material while also playing with marvelous precision.
The piece wraps up with two Seuss-inspired miniatures. “Great yawns are in blossom” opens echoing the main three-note theme of Ernest Chausson’s Concerto for Violin, Piano, and String Quartet. It develops through glistening Copland-esque harmonies, and slowly evolves into deep, contemplative soulfulness, its pianissimos and diminuendos adroitly expressed by the musicians. “Great yawns” indeed – this is a sleep rich in dreams. The final piece rode on fiery sixteenth notes driven by the musicians with effervescent momentum.
An eloquent performance of the Schumann Piano Quintet followed. It had wonderful energy as well as great maturity that belied the young age of a few of the musicians. The colors of the strings and of Drew Petersen’s piano melded smoothly and with muscle in the first movement. The darkness of the next movement emanated strongly from the first violin’s gorgeous tone in its lyrical theme and still further from the piano’s theme that followed. In shape, Weill Recital Hall looks plain and boxy, but it provides superb acoustics for chamber music; every instrument sounded clean and powerful. The faint downside of that is that I could hear every microscopic flaw in intonation and timing, but those were truly tiny.
The players shouted the third movement’s triplet scales in resolute synchrony and played an especially moving straight-time trio section, before concluding with high spirits as the finale flashed its playful counterpoint and dense harmonies.
The Debussy String Quartet likewise benefited from excellent ensemble work. In the first movement the musicians brought brilliant dynamism to the composer’s many shifts in tempo and mood. They got the half-joking, half-lyrical spirit just right in the second, with its new iterations of the first movement’s main theme, and showed especially fine pizzicato work. The long, painterly third movement has plenty of space for the individual instrumentalists to shine. The quartet bathed the score in pastoral loveliness, each player taking the spotlight in turn with vivid tone as they bore the melody in the sweet trio section. The accelerando provided a real thrill, readying us for the flowing energy of the finale, where Debussy displays his uninhibited imaginative powers within relatively structured formality.
All in all it was a performance that made me wish Debussy had written more string quartets. In the absence of such, the versatile Robert Paterson and the rest of us heard a smashing world premiere of his String Quartet No. 3 from the Indianapolis Quartet.
Its five movements follow an “other voices” theme, but while that might suggest an overly serious attitude, the music is a delight. Stutters, slides, abrupt accents, and trills animate the first movement, “Twist and Shout,” giving it a narrative drive that nods to the realities of Tourette’s Syndrome, which inspired it. “Poet Voice,” the most abstract of the movements, rotates between 20th-century modernism and suggestions of the Romantic, effectively merging musical traditions. It suggests in its rising, lilting melodic gestures the flowering described in its inspiration, Louise Glück’s poem “The Wild Iris.”
Auctioneering and country fiddling are the foundations of “Auction Chant.” Aggressive bassline plucking from the cello rocks against energetic sawing from the violins and viola amid non-traditional time signatures and unexpected rhythmic caesuras. Why the quote from “Die Moldau”? No idea. But after a movement inspired by electronic guitar-pedal effects, Paterson builds a whole final statement around familiar tunes, from the Rocky theme to sports and state songs, with some marvelous rapid fiddling from the first violin.
Was there an Indiana state song in there? I wouldn’t know. But if the Hoosiers wanted to adopt an official state “band,” they could hardly do better than their own Indianapolis Quartet.
Skillfully crafted, Paterson’s new String Quartet is also an awful lot of fun. The composer, who never seems to stand still, has another premiere coming up when the New Amsterdam Singers debut his I Go Among Trees for chorus and marimba on March 20 and 22, also in New York City.