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22.3.05

¼ Emerson

The Smithsonian Associates present recitals with the individual members of the Emerson String Quartet—one each a year. Perhaps because "Emerson String Quartet" sounds better than "Dutton/Ilic Recital," the information focused on the former aspect and was somewhat confusing. I am sure that if I now go back to the concert's description, I will find mention of its exact nature, and subscribers surely know. But casual ticket purchasers, including acquaintances of mine, have called the billing everything from "misleading" to "bait and switch" to "false advertising."

Possible false expectations aside, there was still a fine recital to enjoy, namely that of pianist Marija Ilic and violist Lawrence Dutton. The perfection of execution and intonation that always marks the Emerson Quartet's recordings were oddly missing from Brahms's Viola Sonata, op. 120, #2 (E-flat major), though the sonority of Dutton's instrument was amply present in the good-sounding Baird Auditorium of the National Museum of Natural History. The young Serbian pianist accompanied him perfectly adequately and often with considerable rhythmic insight, though a slip in the op. 120, no. 2, seemed to affect her security and resulted in the remainder of the Brahms being played safe.

The Brahms also raised questions about the viola as such. Daring the scorn of already much (and unfairly?) maligned viola players, I dare say that there is a reason as to why there are more viola jokes than there are about all other instruments in the orchestra combined. (And that includes the bassoon, a highly silly instrument!)

Mozart's favorite instrument, unless exposed to its most refined advantage by composer and soloist alike, has a few problems to overcome. Its sound can be less than ethereal. Where the cello yearns, the viola's low passages sound like a cicada in love. Where the violin sings, the viola imitates an 80-year-old mezzo soprano. Where either cello or violin laments, the viola whines. There are, of course, players who can make me eat my words. In a case of most delicious irony, violinist Pinchas Zuckerman is one of them, Roger Tapping and Anita Mitterer others. At least in the first half of the recital, Lawrence Dutton was not one of them.

But in my book, most everything is forgiven when you program Hindemith. The Viola Sonata in F, op. 11, no. 4, deserves to reach many more ears than it does. Exposing it to the audience at the Museum of Natural History made more than up for quibbles about intonation and unpleasant rawness of tone. Thus kindly disposed to Dutton/Ilic (even though I received the icy stare of death from Mr. Dutton when I audibly blew my nose while he was tuning between Brahms's movements one and two, which felt like a Nažgul had flown by), I went into the second half of the program that started with Gardens and Pools by John Patitucci, a jazz bass player.

"Crossover in the best sense of the word," according to Dutton, it comes fresh off the composer's desk, the ink still wet. What the audience got was the unofficial world premiere of a work that didn't strike me as being "crossover" at all, whether in the good or bad sense. It was an excellent, tonal, mildly modern, spiky here, lush there work for viola and piano. The remotely jazzy elements were more subtle than many a Russian classical composer's over the last 80 years. It was accessible without pandering, sweet and short, and the most charming part of the recital.

Brahms bookended the concert with the first of the op. 120 sonatas in F minor. I find it the more pleasing of the two, but it was also noticeable that most of the intonation and sharpness had dissipated from the performance. Indeed, there were moments of true beauty in this performance that had been conspicuously absent from the E-flat major sonata.

With Hindemith and the lovely discovery of Patitucci to the rescue, with a consoling closing Brahms, the recital of the "Emerson Quartet minus three" was a fine Saturday afternoon well spent, after all. The first of the four Romantic Pieces of Dvořák's, transposed down to the viola's level, err, range, made for an encore where, finally, Dutton showed that the viola does have a lyrical side, making it more than the Sancho Panza of the Orchestra.

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