The string quartet genre, like many other chamber music forms (the madrigal, various quintets, a solo song recitals, for instance) has always seemed to me more fun to perform than to listen to. Chamber works are limited by their own small gathering of musical forces. For many of us, if they have an effect it is because we take advantage of going to live performances.
The Emerson String Quartet is a vital example of how chamber music-making comes alive in an actual stage performance. And on Sunday, the Emerson brought its distinguished and elegant sounds to a sold-out Kilbourn Hall, in a concert presented by the Eastman School of Music. It was a journey through 300 years of string-quartet history, with music ranging from the early to the 20th century, Purcell to Berg.
The Emerson Quartet, named after America poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, is an internationally recognized ensemble, noted for its inspired interpretations and recordings. Each composer on Sunday's program had his unique style within his current age, which we sometimes identify as a "sound world."
Violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzser, violist Lawrence Dutton, and cellist Paul Watkins began the concert with two Henry Purcell pieces from the 17th century, the first "sound world" of the concert. These pieces brought a soft intimacy, simple harmony, and abrupt changes as cellist Paul Watkins watched carefully to coordinate with the phrasing of the other strings, creating a uniformity that he as a cello player, the only one of the four who was seated, can observe. Especially noteworthy was the ending of the second "Fantasia," where the sound, dying away, hung in the air.
Next we jumped 300 years into the sound world of Alban Berg and his Lyric Suite (1926). This six-movement piece contains a strong sense of the theater, using new and provocative string sounds. Technical agility, plucked strings, shaking-fast vibrating cello manipulations, and a sense of freedom created both by a relaxed mastery of technique and the musicians' manner on stage provided a friendly framework for this difficult piece.
In the suite's fourth movement, Adagio Appassionato, there is a contemporary trend found in much of modern music of all types: the use of intense and sometimes harsh music to express "passion." This type of 20th century work benefits from a live, committed performance, as this one certainly was. The quartet performed intelligently and theatrically throughout.
The concert's third "sound world," the Beethoven String Quartet, was written 100 years before the Berg, and it brings us back to a more familiar tapestry of melody and harmony. The challenges here are associated with length, and with the endurance and stamina of the quartet. The Emerson makes this all seem so easy: we trust their interpretation and settle back for the ride.
Beethoven was never short winded. He expanded most everything he wrote. His abrupt changes between lyrical and brusque, soft and forceful phrasing, changes in style (as in the dance - waltz - movement), athleticism in performance, and interplay of music being tossed around by the instruments, were all within the vast range of abilities of the Emerson Quartet.
For the encore that the cheering audience demanded, the quartet performed a short movement from Bach's "Irish Suite." Although this was a new "sound world," coming from the 18th century, I found this piece slightly disappointing. I had anticipated a more "bravura" display, but we were left in the quiet countryside of Ireland.
Chamber music can be a hard sell, but the sold-out performance at Kilbourn Hall suggests that when it is provided by a top-notch ensemble, the audience will come - even on Super Bowl Sunday.
And a request from this concert-goer: Thanks to the sell-out, extra stage seating was provided, wrapped around the back of the stage. People sitting in those chairs should be advised not to leave during the performance. It's a distraction to both the audience and the artists and is a little rude.