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The Emerson String Quartet

Jordan Hall, Boston, Mass. 

December 4, 2009

Twentieth century music is generally associated with atonality and avant-garde experimentation; this is not necessarily an untrue association, and many of Friday evening’s composers are specially known for their forays into these movements. The music is not without its own narrative, its own tonal lexicon and rationale that somehow culminates in a cohesive thesis. All of Friday evening’s music was older than fifty years old, and it was striking to hear how much of this music has been adapted in to the collective idiom in the twenty-first century.

It is difficult to think of the Emerson Quartet being less than fluent in any genre, having produced award-winning recordings from composers ranging from Haydn to Shostakovich and almost everyone in between, but the members seemed to really grasp the genre in Friday evening’s concert.

The Emerson String Quartet, hosted by the Celebrity Series of Boston, played a program of early twentieth century works by Charles Ives, Leoš Janáček, Samuel Barber and Dmitri Shostakovich. While an evening filled with this collection of composers (devoid of Emerson’s signature Beethoven or Haydn) may seem impossibly heavy-handed or dense, Friday evening’s concert proved far less daring. 

Ives’s first string quartet, “From the Salvation Army,” first on Friday evening’s program, provided a warm introduction into a potentially harrowing evening of music. Shaggy Americana pentatonic scales ushered in a first movement that proceeded to recall the nostalgic mythology of a Main Street heritage complete with warm afternoons of baseball and chilly evenings of apple pie. The work is, by no means, simple: harrowing bursts throughout the four movements thrust the audience into fits that fall nothing short of disorientation; certainly, ensemble work in these areas were notably well-crafted, but this is not to ignore the cohesion of the entire work in Emerson’s considerable talent: melodic lines traded fluently from one instrument to another, particularly between violinists Drucker (first) and Setzer (second), who performed, for all intents and purposes, as a single musician.

Janáček’s first string quartet, performed second on the program, was no less well-crafted, but a striking change of pace; whereas Ives’s work somehow focuses on sonority, Janáček’s work thrives on contrast and diversity: Film-score adagios careen in to riveting solo-instrument elocution (cellist David Finckel not only managed dramatic flare but maintained remarkable clarity and pearly tone in these shocking passages). True to twentieth-century stereotype, later movements moved away from traditional tonality, throwing startling dissonances in the middle of melodic passages, but contrasts were clearly part of the ensembles rhetoric as each surprised appeared as unexpectedly as the one preceding.

The evening concluded with yet two more patriotic works. Barber’s Adagio is, by all accounts, overdone and for good reason: played during every national tragedy, Barber’s work has surreptitiously entered into the American subconscious with an air of melancholy. It is easy to become complacent with the work as both audience member and performer, to associate it with its ascribed meaning rather than to hear it as part of a cohesive whole. Friday’s performance took special care not to fall into this trap, shaping each moving line not according to its ascribed triplet motion, rather inventing and re-inventing this notoriously difficult-to-interpret line in context with its position in the piece. A solemn work, it is remarkable to be reminded how poignantly beautiful it is.

Shostakovich’s 9th string quartet often becomes obfuscated by his more affable 8th; Friday’s performance offered impetus for performing the 9th even more regularly: Russian melodies reverberated throughout with shocking vivacity, so much so that it was no surprise to see violist Lawrence Dutton’s A string snap in the middle of the the Allegretto movement; no issue - the re-stringing of the instrument provided the audience with yet another iteration of the vivacious music, perhaps cleaner the second time through. Heavy peasant melodies and rhythms concluded the work that sent the audience into a standing ovation.

This, however, was striking: the ensemble rewarded the audience’s considerable appreciation with a performance of the third movement of Antonin Dvořák’s Cypresses String quartet (Op. 106), a setting of When thy sweet glances on me fall. A more traditionally Romantic work, Dvořák’s piece paled in comparison to the wild and vivid music performed earlier in the evening.

Perhaps it is our association with film music, that pop music, too, has begun extended tonalities and obviating the standard rhythmic, harmonic structures that teach ust to understand the forebears of these innovationIt is striking that, with the passage of time, how the avant-garde becomes comprehensible at last.

Boston’s Celebrity Series continues its 2009–10 series on Saturday, December 12, with a performance by the Vienna Boys’ Choir, in New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall.