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Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Emerson String Quartet at Tufts

Friday was a day to remember. Willemien and I had tickets to see the famed Emerson String Quartet at the Granoff Music Center at Tufts University in Medford/Somerville.

The concert had to be one of the watershed classical music events of the 2008-09 concert season in Boston. The Emerson (Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer on violins - Lawrence Dutton, viola, and David Finckel, cello) is acknowledged as one of the top string quartets in the world. They have won eight Grammy Awards. For over three decades the ensemble has systematically explored the rich repertory written for this lean but mean combination of stringed instruments. I first learned about this gang of four from a few of their excellent recordings: Bach's Art of the Fugue arranged for string quartet, and the complete works for string quartet (and the string trio) by Anton Webern. But I never heard the Emerson perform live, at least not until this past Friday evening.

While the ensemble is Zagat top-rated, the venue is also about as ideal as we have in the Boston area. The new 300-seat Distler Performance Hall at Tufts Granoff Music Center has the perfect dimension, ambiance, and acoustic for listening to intimate music composed for string quartet. Before members of the Emerson came out on the stage to perform, Joseph Auner - Chair of the Tufts Music Department and a noted musicologist who has published a book on Schoenberg - welcomed the audience. He mentioned that Distler Hall was "optimized" by the acoustical engineers for string quartet. It seems to be true, and a perfect example of how science and art can work together (with the support of generous donors and an enlightened university) to provide great public spaces for music.

It is clear that Tufts is proud of their new music building, and arranging the Emerson String Quartet to perform there rather than in one of the major venues in Boston must have been quite a coup. Perhaps Joseph Auner used his prior connections on the faculty of SUNY at Stony Brook (where the Emerson is Quartet-in-Residence) to broker the deal.

The sold-out, full-capacity audience at Granoff seemed to represent the who's who of the Boston musical scene. Not only was Tufts represented by a contingent of senior administrators and distinguished faculty, but professional musicians and enthusiastic music students from the entire Boston-area were present. I spied the Department Chair of a Music Department from a little college down the road in Cambridge that starts with the letter H. She had brought her Beethoven String Quartet class along on a field trip to hear the Emerson perform the "Serioso."

There was much anticipatory electricity in the hall, since hearing the Emerson Quartet live is not a show to be missed. The concert began with the String Quartet in G Minor,Op. 74 No. 3 (known as the Reiterquartett or "Horseman") by Franz Joseph Haydn. Eugene Drucker was playing first violin (the two violinists of the Emerson routinely alternate between the first and second stand). It was a good warm-up piece, and the quartet found the right balance between exploiting the light and humorous elements in the music against the dramatic spiritual moments.

Papa Haydn had a unique ability to provide raw entertainment with an assortment of musical tricks or gimmicks while at the same time transporting us to another world with his profound understanding of musical structure and form. The sul'una corda (on one string) special effects of the first movement were not over-done by first violinist Drucker. It is a music effect that could verge on the 18th century equivalent of cartoon music if not handled judiciously.

The mezza voce ensemble playing of the second movement (Largo assai) was beautiful too. Haydn composed the opening music in this slow movement as one unified instrument, and the balance, articulation, vibrato, and tone color of the four musicians did not detract from that chorale conception in the slightest. Later on in the movement there are some Haydn-esque surprises, which the quartet executed with rhythmic precision.

It was interesting to watch the visual interaction between the performers, and how they make eye-contact at critical junctions within the piece. You don't get those nuances from just listening to a recording. It is one of those elements that make live performance exciting. Knowing that a train wreck could potentially occur at moment, the audience sits on the edge of their seats watching as well as listening. Performing music can be acrobatic, and that is an acknowledged part of the show - both in Haydn's time and in ours.

Musically, the Minuet is not that unusual, but the unified articulation of the staccato notes marked forte (measures 58-60) caught my attention. The Emerson seems to be very aware of the details written into the music, and they faithfully render the sounds as notated in the score. The acoustic of Distler Performance Hall allowed everyone in the room to distinctly hear every iota of sonic energy emitting from their matching modern instruments (all crafted by Samuel Zygmuntowicz in New York). Even with my aging ears, I could easily hear the rich timbre of their bows bouncing off their strings, or the resonance of a lone pizzicato as it echoed throughout the hall. That's why it's called chamber music.

Haydn's Finale (Allegro con brio) is toe-tapping piece on a folk-like melody in sonata form stretched over a rhythmic grid. It's got some jazzy syncopations and showy high notes in the first violin. The Emerson played it faster than I've heard it before, and this created a great deal of excitement in the audience. After the Haydn, it seemed that everyone was warmed up, acclimated to the acoustic, and ready to tackle the next work.

The second piece on the program was the later 12th Quartet in D-flat Major, Opus 133 by Dmitri Shostakovich. It was a new piece to me, and to many others in the audience as well. At first hearing I found the opening two moments (Moderato- Allegretto) to be compositionally unfocused. But when the Allegretto - Adagio - Moderato - Allegretto sections kicked in, Shostakovich finally got my attention. The piece is heavy, dark, and stoic. It's music that seems cut off from the rest of the world, an almost private view into the composer's psyche. It is a piece of large dimensions, broad brush strokes, and at times it verges on morphing into a full-blown cello concerto.

It's interesting to observe how the same musicians and same instruments that we had just heard performing the elegant 18th century music of Haydn had suddenly transformed themselves to accommodate a completely different culture, time, psychological frame of mind, and musical aesthetic. Shostakovich is a long way from Haydn's Vienna. Technically, the piece is sometimes tonal (in the dark regions of D-flat major), but at other times it utilizes a language that is modernistic, highly chromatic, free-form, and atonal. The composer was torn in many directions, and willing to mix and match not only divergent techniques, but simple and complex ideas in a single work. After the intermission the program was about to get even heavier.

Many people had come specifically to hear the String Quartet in F Minor Op 95 by Beethoven. The "Serioso" quartet, as it is known, is an experimental work by Beethoven. The composer never intended this intense and introspective work to be a populist top-forty hit. Beethoven reportedly said, "The Quartet [op. 95] is written for a small circle of connoisseurs and is never to be performed in public."

While not a late quartet, the Serioso falls at the end of Beethoven's middle period. It's a very compressed piece that explores musical ideas and possibilities which provide insight into the depth and complexity of Beethoven's mind. The composer quickly shifts between calm and violent states of mind, and does not hesitate to break the rules of tradition. There are places where the listener is jolted, even shocked, by sounds that startle us - even today. Yet when one studies the structure underneath the dense pages blackened with notes, there is a cool logic that binds it all together. Arnold Schoenberg for one noted that the chromatic unison motive (Db, C, D-natural, E-natural) from the very first measure finds it's way into the fabric of the entire work. In some ways the piece foreshadows music.'s future. It's as if Beethoven had psychic abilities regarding the musical revolution that the 19th and 20th centuries would bring.

The second movement of the Beethoven quartet covers a lot of ground with just a few pages of score. We travel to distant keys, and take in two fugues. As listeners on a journey we have come a long way from the style of Beethoven's teacher and mentor - Haydn. Beethoven is emotional, brash, but his command of technical details within the music keep even the most concerned skeptics on board. Beethoven does not dumb down his art for anyone, and his "take-no-prisoners" stance makes him stand out as a composers' composer. To use a modern cliché, Beethoven "thinks outside of the box."

The Serioso, the sub-title for Beethoven's quartet - comes from the third movement (Allegro assai vivace ma serioso). It's an Italianesque term cleverly invented by Beethoven to instruct the performers (and consequently the listeners) in how to perform the music. It is based on a standard Scherzo and Trio, but transcends the mood we often associate with this form. Beethoven biographer Maynard Soloman preferred to call this movement a "March-Trio."

The fourth and final movement begins with a slow introduction in 2/4, but soon launches into a hearty Allegretto agitato in 6/8. It's built on a very logical structure that combines sonata form with the rondo. Beethoven borrows an idea from Mozart and uses his modified rondo structure (A B A' C B' A'). The Mozart innovation is less monotonous and more streamlined than the standard classical-era rondo ( A B A' C A'' B' A'''). Soon the work ends convincingly enough in F minor (m 132), but we suddenly find bonus material tacked on. Beethoven says goodbye with an Allegro that functions as a coda in F major that is totally unrelated to anything else in the work. Scholar Basil Lam observed that "comic-opera ending, [is] absurdly and deliberately unrelated to the 'quartet serioso'- the true Shakespearean touch that provides the final confirmation of the truth of the rest." But, with the brisk tempo that the Emerson Quartet played it at, it made the audience smile ear to ear. It was a wild and wacky ending to a profound work, and a little sugar-high at the end provided needed mental energy and a good send-off before the next heavy work on the program.

I've wondered how it must feel to relay to the public such a complex work of Beethoven's, and to be able to rapidly shift gears from one emotional to another at the drop of a dime in the communication process. Beethoven's volatile and often outright explosive personality is, to put it bluntly, symptomatic of an individual with unstable and obsessive-compulsive characteristics. You might label the genius "passive-aggressive" in the jargon of modern psycho-babble. As a performer, it is necessary to get into the composer's head, but engaging in a Star Trek-like Vulcan mind-meld with Beethoven surely must be dangerous business. I am grateful that the musicians of the Emerson Quartet for being willing to dive courageously into these deep psychological conflicts, and to then publicly convey variations on Beethoven's brand of scream therapy on the stage for audience enjoyment. It's just another reason why a Friday evening dinner and a movie can't compare to the excitement of a night out with live classical music. It's like meeting Beethoven face to face, with his stormy anger, shaking fists, and all.

Written in 1927, the Third String Quartet of Béla Bartók, is about 15 minutes in duration. It is clearly a work that utilizes the traditional string quartet, but in non-traditional ways. The music is fresh and exciting to the ear. Bartók in many ways redefined the string quartet anew. While he does incorporate folk music from his native Hungry, it speaks a different language. While I've seen some indication that the work is written in C-sharp minor, are not key signatures or any obvious relationship to that key, or traditional harmony as far as I can see. There are however many symmetries in the work, both formally and woven into the intervallic structure of the notes. Bartók is a cool, calm, and collected composer, but at the same time there are wild and primitive outbursts. He pushes the envelope of what string players can do, and it's natural that the Emerson Quartet would program this work for last on the hefty but diverse concert.

The Bartók Third Quartet is full of extended string techniques, which press the performers to produce a broader spectrum of colors and sounds. Bartók's work is almost orchestral in tone, and at times laser sharp in brilliance and sheer amplitude. As the musicians articulate the music with multi-stops, harmonics, sul ponticello, glissandi, trills, col legno, pizzicato, and even entire walls of sound, the centricity of pitch can becomes secondary to seductive fruits of overall texture and color.

There is rhythmic vitality in Bartók's music as well. You almost want to dance, but don't know how. The asymmetric, irregular, and changing meters, along with classic Hungarian short-long rhythmic patterns dominate this work. I watched for visual signs of inter-player communication as the quartet negotiated some of the more challenging rhythms, but sensed that they weren't simply counting beats at all. The rhythms were exact, yet they had internalized them as dance-like gestures, and were playing the patterns from muscle memory. This must be a piece they have performed often, since it was spirited and on the cutting edge of playability, but flawless in execution (as far as I could hear).

Bartók's Third Quartet also has simple melodies and counterpoint in his work too. Bringing out individual lines in an equally composed texture can be tricky too. The musicians in the Emerson found the right balance here. I was able to hear some important lines that I've never heard before, even on recording. But I also got a sense that these lines were not being fore grounded inappropriately. The musical score can only go so far to notate the detail of a performance. The rest is left up to the musicians to make decisions about, and I really got a clear, unified, and truthful reading from the Emerson Quartet that they had not only thought through all these details, but that were in agreement about what should be conveyed. It's not every day that concert performance goes well beyond just being well rehearsed. The Bartók was performed as if they knew what they wanted to say, and how to say it.

In the afternoon preceding the concert I dropped in on a public Master Class with one member of the Emerson Quartet - violinist Philip Setzer - and Tufts students. Mr. Setzer arrived five minutes late, having found himself driving in circles around "the little streets" of Medford and Somerville. (Beware that there are two streets named Tabor: Aveune and Road). Setzer listened to a group of students coached by Scott Woolweaver play through most of the first movement of the Brahms Sextet in B-flat Major, opus 18. I was very curious to hear what he had to say, since listing to the things that performers think about regarding music they perform provides a lot of valuable insight. As a composer, I truly appreciate the reality and common sense viewpoint performers bring to the table. It's very different from the shop talk of composers, musicologists, and music theorists who seem to breathe something other than oxygen.

At first Setzer commented on the room acoustics. He noted that it is a large room with a high ceiling, and that it might relate to his having trouble hearing some of the detail in the String Sextet. For example, he clearly couldn't hear the second viola's pizzicato in measure 62, or the syncopations (in measure 51). (I was glad to hear his comment since his observation mirrored my impression as well). Setzer asked questions like "who's the boss?" and "who's leading in this section?" Getting into the notes, he pointed out a spot (starting in m. 214) where some of the parts that are playing "off the beat." Those instrumentalists should listen to other parts that are playing "on the beat." He pointed out a slower section that should be dance like, and talked a lot about articulation.

Occasionally borrowing a violin from the ensemble, Setzer would demonstrate a phase, how to articulate it, and what a difference a little vibrato can make. "Play vibrato through the entire phrase. It keeps the notes alive." It was easy to hear the difference in overall sound between a vibrato that appears only after the initial attack of notes with a long duration, and a vibrato that is always present. Setzer went on to compare the nature of string instruments to properties of the piano. Pianists have more control over their attacks, but string players are better able to mold the sound after a note is struck. As a result, if this Brahms Sextet were played in an arrangement for two pianos, we would hear the counterpoint and syncopations much clearer.

Setzer then said, "Now I'm going to make trouble." He questioned the positioning of the celli, and said that the sound would be much stronger if they were in the rear facing the audience rather than off to the right. He said that if you are going to sit in chairs, that they need to face the audience more. He quipped that the audience is "out there" (pointing to the front), and that "they purchased tickets to hear you." "Music is an art, but it is also a business." Everyone chuckled.

Taking instrument placement a step further, he had everyone except for the cellos try playing standing up. He explained how the Emerson Quartet has been playing standing up for about seven years, and that it really improves the sound. The cellist(s) can be slightly elevated. He indicated that if a violinist sits, the reflection of sound from the floor complicates the acoustic and makes it more difficult for everyone - including the player - to hear.

I couldn't stay for the entire Master Class, but I got a good idea about some of the thought processes involved that contribute to making the Emerson Quartet one of the top chamber music ensembles around. After three decades of performing, they are still at the top of their game.