Chamber Music Review Print

Standing Tall: The Emerson String Quartet at Duke

March 8, 2003 - Durham, NC:

The moment you entered Reynolds Industries Theater on the Duke University campus on March 8, you realized something was quite different. The occasion was the Chamber Arts Society's presentation of the very popular Emerson String Quartet, yet, the stage setup consisted of three music stands raised to standing height with no corresponding chairs. There was also a raised platform with a piano bench and lowered stand. As members of the audience at one of the great learning institutions in the world, we were able to deduce from those clues that this meant that three fourths of the quartet would perform standing up. One would think that at some time in many years of concerts, I would have come across this, but even the more non-traditional quartets, like the Kronos, Turtle Island, and others, remain seated. However, after the initial uniqueness of this setup wore off, it didn't seem to affect the playing or sound one way or another and it became a non-issue.

The Emerson Quartet is staffed by Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violins, Lawrence Dutton, viola, and David Finckel, cello. First and second violins are not designated because Drucker and Setzer trade off the first and second violin parts for entire works. Again, this seems like a perfectly reasonable and democratic arrangement, but it is one that is hardly ever practiced in other groups. The quartet is celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary and has become one of the most successful classical ensembles, especially in the last ten years. Their recordings have won critical and popular acclaim, and they have collected six Grammy awards for their Shostakovich, Bartók, Beethoven, and Ives collections.

The evening's program was, at least by traditional string quartet standards, predominantly "modern," programmatic, and decidedly gloomy. The excellent and large-print program notes began with a description by Leos Janácek of his Quartet No. 1 ("Kreutzer Sonata"), written in 1923: "I had in mind a miserable woman, suffering, beaten, wretched, like the great Russian author Tolstoy wrote about in his "Kreutzer Sonata." Well, an upbeat, sunny Haydn-like work this was definitely not going to be. Based on the well-known Tolstoy short story, this was also the name given to one of Beethoven's most popular violin sonatas. Janácek's is a work of tremendous drama, mood changes and powerful emotion, although I still find it hard to attribute the music directly to events in the story. Drucker played first violin in this work. His playing seemed a bit tentative, and several notes required quick intonation adjustments. There was a detached and disaffected quality to the playing at first, but this eventually gave way to a very spirited and involved performance of a work that the composer liked to call a "psychological drama."

While perhaps (thankfully) not yet reaching the general popularity of works like the Pachelbel's Canon or Vivaldi's The Four Seasons , Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings has certainly entered the world of popular classics. Its use in several films, its appearance in arrangements for everything from brass to wordless choral settings, and its sheer beauty have made it one of the most recognizable compositions in all of music. It is actually just the adagio movement from Barber's Quartet, Op. 11, written in 1936. This entire quartet is a wonderful work, and audiences should, whenever possible, be exposed to the whole quartet so it can be heard it in its original context. Playing the surrounding movements adds only about thirteen minutes, so I don't understand presenting the core as a stand-alone movement. However, the performance was simply ravishing. It is hard to explain to non-string players how difficult this lovely but easy-sounding and slow work is to play. While four players can never have the depth and power of the well-known string orchestra arrangement, these guys came very close. The blending of their vibratos, the seemingly endless bowing required in the very long lines, and the remarkable pianissimo playing made this a magical performance. Whenit was over, the effect was so powerful that applause seemed an intrusion.

String Quartet No. 3 by Bela Bartók was up next. This is a concise and somewhat revolutionary work that contains traces of both old and new worlds. Balkan folk rhythms are combined with string effects and compositional forms not heard before. It requires virtuosic playing and control, ably demonstrated by the Emerson Quartet. It is stunning that this quartet and Bartók's other five still have the power to hit us as new and "modern" even 75 years after they were written.

The second half began with a short work by Hugh Aitken, who was in attendance. According to the composer's program notes, "Laura Goes to India," written in 1998, is supposed to contain rhythmic patterns of an Indian drum. This work did little to convince me that there was anything Indian about it; it is a pleasant but uninspiring composition that repeatedly hammers the same ideas without any development. It was played with great energy but it is, ultimately, not something I would want to hear again.

The highlight of the evening was the very personal and emotionally draining Quartet No. 8, Op. 110, written by Dimitri Shostakovich in 1960. Inscribed and dedicated "In Memory of victims of Fascism and war," this is a deeply personal and biographical composition. The composer uses a musical acronym from letters of his name as well as direct quotations from some of his own works to present some of the most intense and haunting music ever written. The quartet is played without pause and is a roller coaster of emotion. The Emerson Quartet played it with an astounding depth of feeling. You could almost sense the oppression and persecution that victims of such treatment felt.

After such a work as that, it seems almost unthinkable to play anything else - it is almost like expecting an encore after a eulogy. Thus, there was none, and the audience exited to the warm spring-like night, perhaps hoping that more victims were not on the immediate horizon.