Ives Quartet & pianist John Orlando


By Richard Lynde

In the final piece of their concert on October 26, the quintet for piano and strings by Arthur Foote, the Ives Quartet (Bettina Mussumeli and Susan Freier, violins; Jodi Levitz, viola; and Stephen Harrison, cello) with Distinguished Artists Series founder and director John Orlando at the keyboard concluded a program of “minor” works by American composers that added up to a major hit.

While the Ives Quartet is still very young, its members, all award-winning soloists in their own right, live and teach in the San Francisco Bay Area. They took their part in this the Distinguished Artists 30th anniversary season. The concert, at Peace United Church in Santa Cruz, was played without intermission so we could all rush home and watch the Giants go up 3-2 in the World Series.

The program opened with William Bolcom’s (b. 1939) Three Rags for String Quartet (1989), originally for solo piano and in both cases a takeoff on and tribute to Scott Joplin’s early 20th century ragtime pieces such as The Entertainer. The first one, Poltergeist, was full of eerie dissonance, pizzicato humor, then a jolly toe-tapping that just faded away. In contrast, the second, Graceful Ghost, also appropriate for Halloween, smoothly ebbed and flowed through the air. You can imagine what an Incineratorag might sound like: jagged, with a big burning sound and lots of swing, ending with hot embers.

Quincy Porter (1897-1966) has been considered somewhat “academic,” but as his String Quartet No. 9 (1958) demonstrates, in the best sense. The three sections (Moderato-Allegro-Lento) proceeded without pauses, using sometimes a singing style, and in others point-counterpoint. The Ives Quartet did a very fine and effortless job on this “guess who?” composer, with echoes of his contemporaries Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Prokofieff, in a theme tune that is batted around among the four viols perhaps a little too long.

The concluding and by far biggest work on this program was Foote’s (1853-1937) Piano John-OrlandoQuintet, Op. 38, from 1897, coincidentally the birth year of Quincy Porter. Here, director-pianist Orlando sat before the majestic Yamaha CFX concert grand joining the quartet in this very strong, captivating work. Over many years attending the Distinguished Artists concerts, I found this easily the best collaborative performance I have heard John Orlando do. The Allegro giusto: Appassionato opens with a bang, then flows, the piano adding a huge dimension to the strings. With the pianist always on top of his part, this sounded sometimes like Brahms without the storm and stress.

The Intermezzo followed, opening with some resonant keyboard arpeggios. Joined by the strings, this became a meditation; a beautifully quiet scene with rippling waters and even echoes of Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet. The Scherzo was a fast, whimsical musical joke; lots of fleet with very clear runs and trills. The concluding Allegro giusto, sounding a bit like MacDowell and every bit as good as his work, was a long dance, charming, and with a great piano solo passage. All during this piece, to the great credit of Orlando, his volume was perfectly adjusted to those of the quartet, so that instead of leading he blended in and let the lush tones of the big Yamaha sing with its string chorus. The audience was delighted with the intense performance.