Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Emerson String Quartet

I attended the Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society concert featuring the Emerson String Quartet. The Emerson String Quartet is a New York–based string quartet in residence at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Previously the Quartet was in residence at The Hartt School. Formed in 1976, they have released more than twenty albums and won eight Grammy Awards. Both violinists in the quartet were students of the noted violinist Oscar Shumsky. Formed in the bicentennial year of the United States, the Emerson String Quartet took its name from the great American poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. Violinists Drucker and Setzer alternate as first and second violinists.

The program included:

IVES – String Quartet No. 1, “A Revival Service”

Chorale: Andante con moto

Prelude: Allegro

Offertory: Adagio cantabile

Postlude: Allegro marziale

JANACEK- String Quartet No. 2, “Intimate Letters

Andante con moto




BARBER – Adagio (from String Quartet No. 1, Op. 11)

SHOSTAKOVICH – String Quartet No. 9, Op. 117

Moderato con moto





The Carnegie Music Hall is a perfect venue for chamber music. It is intimate, yet reverberant. There is no bad seat. It is elegant. The quartet sounded like silk come alive. Their tone was rich but never strident. I did not detect intonation problems. I generally have not liked Ives, particularly for his use of historical American music with dissonance thrown in. His Revival Service, however, was full of melody and richness. The Janacek was exciting. The skill of the players was evident when the score called for bouncing the violin bows against the strings. It was done precisely with complete control. The Barber is overly familiar music and is played whenever someone even moderately famous dies. When played by the full string complement of an orchestra is can sound overwrought and treacly. When played by a string quartet, it is lean and beautiful. It was possible for me to hear this warhorse with “new ears.” The Shostakovich was played without interruption. It is complex music that does not contain hummable melodies. Rather, it challenges the listener to stay focused on its multi-layered construction. The Emerson played it with precision.

I have not attended a concert recently that passed by so quickly. Its 2-hour length seemed like minutes. That speaks to the quality of the music and the playing. Each member of a string quartet is under the auditory microscope. An individual player can’t hide in the sound of another, as is possible in a full-scale orchestra. Each of the four Emerson virtuosi carried off their respective roles with unbelievable skill and aplomb.

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