MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Senses of an Ending: The Emerson String Quartet Takes Its Final Bow in Seattle

The Emerson String Quartet; photo (c) Jürgen Frank

There’s actually still nearly a year to go before the Emerson String Quartet (ESQ) plays its final final concert, which is currently planned for the end of October 2023 at Alice Tully Hall in Manhattan. On top of that, they are also preparing a feature-length documentary of their farewell tour, written and directed by Tristan Cook and produced by Birgit Gernbōck. So this splendid, storied American ensemble still has some way to go before reaching the end of the line….

Still, the Emersons’ concert on 1 December at the Meany Center for the Performing Arts had a distinctly valedictory accent. One of the stops on their official farewell tour, their appearance at the University of Washington venue had already been postponed from the spring and marked the 27th (or possibly even 28th) visit since the ESQ’s debut there in 1988. The ensemble attracts a loyal following, and an impressive percentage of the audience indicated that they had attended that inaugural performance.

As for the musicians, violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer have remained part of the ESQ since they founded it in 1976, and violist Lawrence Dutton joined in 1977. The only other change in personnel has been the arrival of Paul Watkins in 2013 following the departure of longtime cellist David Finckel. (Reunions with Finckel and the other two former members, cellist Eric Wilson and violist Guillermo Figueroa, are also on the agenda during the farewell tour.)

The ESQ have been offering their renowned Shostakovich interpretations as part of the farewell tour — their final London concert a few weeks ago featured the bleak implications of the Russian composer’s last three quartets — but they chose a blend of American and classic European fare for their Meany Center program. Each selection suggested an individual variant on the idea of leave-taking. George Walker expressed his grief over the passing of his grandmother in his 1946 Lyric for Strings, which originated as the slow movement of his String Quartet No. 1. Walker’s structural idea of having the single voices enter one after the other served as a beautiful metaphor for the individuality of the quartet members joining together in song and converging in a collective eloquence.

The ESQ here set the tone for the entire program, which at times seemed uncharacteristically understated, even subdued — as if to keep the audience pricking up its ears to fill in the spaces for what seemed left unsaid. This ploy took particularly delightful form in the fifth of Haydn’s Op. 33 set, the Quartet in G major that since the 19th century has been known by the English nickname “How Do You Do.” The “farewell” here was especially sly and sophisticated. Haydn cleverly plays with the idea of musical endings, which is to say, cadences, by starting off the whole work with a cadential gesture that befits a closing phrase — but that he catchily turns into the connective idea, leading us ever onward. The ESQ didn’t overemphasize Haydn’s little jokes of time and timing — the pizzicato ending that throws an enigmatic question mark on the otherwise plaintive slow movement, or the stop-and-start high-jinx of the scherzo, for example. The focus seemed to be on letting the music have its say, with minimal “interference.”

This translated into a decidedly austere, anti-sentimental take on Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings — like Walker’s, music by a young man, originally positioned as part of a string quartet, which seems wise far beyond its composer’s years. The Adagio (which is said to have been inspired by the third of Virgil’s Georgics) has of course been turned into a default song of farewell, an idealized elegy enlisted to provide a kind of shared catharsis in times of devastating tragedy. Despite some wavering intonation (here and elsewhere in the program), the Emersons homed in, without exaggeration, on the simplicity of the line, Setzer’s first violin soaring with courageous honesty and Dutton’s viola adding a slight, pleading edge. I was especially struck by how an early music sensibility emerged here in place of the usual, throbbing Romanticism.

Schubert was just a couple years older than the Barber of the Adagio for Strings when he wrote his great Quartet in G major in 1826. But rather than launch his career, the Austrian’s final string quartet (unpublished while he was still alive) seems to combine an expansive sense of symphonic writing with his most ambitious ideas of the quartet genre. (It was just around this time that Beethoven was working on his final quartet, in the very same city.)

There was less dramatic digging-in to the muscular aspect of Schubert’s sound world than I expected, and more nuance and room left for inference. Drucker took the lead here (as he had in the Haydn), while Watkins offered some especially flavorful phrasing. The ensemble’s rhythmic flexibility served the Schubert well, and the harmonic revelations of this remarkable quartet were presented as if being discovered for the first time, to mesmerizing effect. The finality of the final cadence to the dance of the fourth movement — which felt as it might otherwise have kept driving ahead, a frenzied vision of eternal return — came as a shock.

As a gentle encore, the Emersons turned to Dvořák’s quartet arrangement of one of the numbers from the collection known as Cypresses (“I Wander Often Past Yonder House”) — the string quartet distilled into pure song.

Review (c) 2022 Thomas May — All rights reserved.

Filed under: Emerson String Quartet, George Walker, Haydn, review, Schubert

Contemplating End Times with the Emerson Quartet

emersons

Emerson String Quartet Photo by Lisa Marie Mazzucco

My review of the Emerson Quartet’s performance for the White Light Festival at Lincoln Center for Musical America (paywall):

NEW YORK—“Conclusions are the weak point of most authors,” George Eliot famously declared, “but some of the fault lies in the very nature of a conclusion, which is at best a negation.” That may hold true for fiction, but composers glory in the powerful statements they can make when a piece approaches the double bar line. And, in the case of certain composers, music written when their own lives are nearing the end possesses a special mystique.

continue reading 

Filed under: Beethoven, Emerson String Quartet, Musical America, review, Shostakovich

The Emerson String Quartet Celebrates 40 Years

2783

My cover story on the Emersons is now out in STRINGS magazine:

The Emerson Quartet has been a dominant fixture in the chamber-music scene for so long now that it takes a considerable leap of imagination to picture what it was like for the ensemble 40 years ago, at the beginning of their adventure. The world was a vastly different place, of course, when they embarked on that debut season in 1976—though the sense of one crisis overlapping the next remains eerily familiar. The Watergate scandal still painfully recent, the nation faced its first election since Richard Nixon’s resignation, while the Fall of Saigon the previous year had just brought the bitter conflict in Vietnam to its traumatic end….

continue reading

Filed under: chamber music, Emerson String Quartet, feature, string quartet

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

RSS Arts & Culture Stories from NPR