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Forget Blondes—Cellists Have More Fun

This post is from Ionarts guest reviewer Lindsay Heller.

Before beginning this review, it is of personal importance that it be mentioned that this concert was generously underwritten by José “Pepe” Figueroa. Pepe’s father, José Sr., was a beloved member of the artistic community in my beloved Puerto Rico as a violinist, educator, and arts activist. Personally aware of Sr. Figueroa’s wonderful and varied musical taste, I am sure that he greatly enjoyed listening in on this performance from above.

Emerson QuartetThis past Thursday, the Emerson String Quartet not only made their debut at the new Strathmore Music Center in North Bethesda, Maryland, but they also happen to have been the first string quartet to ever grace the new stage. As this was my first Strathmore experience, I can honestly say I admire the architecture of the building, but the concert hall reminded me of being inside an Ikea. All the light paneled wood, color scheme, the metallic accents, and the “cafeteria” made me feel like I was going to buy a piece of furniture named “Svend” and someone was going to walk by and offer me a meatball. All in all, it just seemed too casual for a concert hall, but I think the designers wanted to make the concert experience less uptight in hopes of attracting more patrons.

I guess the less formal-looking approach worked because the hall was filled with an excited crowd, who based on their conversations, let me know that they were subscribers and attended many performances. I was a bit alarmed at seeing no chairs on the stage, and so it was interesting to see that the ensemble stood for the duration of what was a very intense, but fun program.

The quartet, who named themselves after the American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, opened with Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in E-flat Major, op. 12. There were no pitch, dynamic, or articulation issues, but one thing certainly captured my attention: the sheer lack of energy on the parts of everyone except cellist David Finckel. (Anyone who has ever seen Finckel perform, with wife Wu Han or solo, knows just how wonderful a performer he is, with his facial expressions, nearly constant smile, and look of wonder as he thoroughly enjoys playing every note.) Having seen this quartet perform before, I was alarmed at how tired and bored Eugene Drucker looked, almost appearing as if he was playing this glorious first violin part on automatic pilot.

As the Mendelssohn progressed, the quartet seemed to come alive again, especially in the Andante espressivo, leading into the final Molto allegro e vivace movement. This beautiful and charming slow movement led straight into this fabulous explosion of sound, as the quartet energetically plunged into its first theme in a restless 12/8 meter. Constantly bringing back fragments of ideas in earlier movements—the dark theme of the first movement, the lyric ideas of the Andante, and the bustling thematic material of the Canzonetta—the quartet played every little nuance brilliantly. Their execution of the false endings before the recapitulation was fabulous; and as the real ending began, the Romantic string march (if you will) led back into the beautiful thematic line with ease. Emerson’s performance of the thematic reminiscences drew the piece to its quiet close after the wild ride calmed down, proving that the ending is both pleasing to the ear and enigmatic.

The quartet’s choice to perform Joan Tower’s Incandescent—a piece commissioned for and heartfully dedicated to the ensemble—was something that personally delighted me. Tower is a wonderful modern composer with interesting philosophies on compositional structure. Incandescent is chock full of dynamic explosions and dissonances within five ideas that unfold as the piece progresses. With Philip Setzer now leading the ensemble, the marked entrances are almost reminiscent of Penderecki’s Threnody in that they seem random but in fact are carefully calculated, as well as the use of specific notes brought out by each performer so as to create these thick, dissonant chords reeking with power. According to Tower’s own notes, the five parts to this piece are characterized as such:

three-note collection that initially appears as an upper and lower neighbor to a central note at the very opening of the piece and that later turns around on itself repeatedly in the first violin; a repetitive, dense, held-in-place, and narrowly registered dissonant chord; a consonant arpeggiation that creases a “melody” distributed throughout the instruments; a climbing motive that initially outlines an octotonic scale and later shifts into both whole-tone and chromatic scales; and, finally, wide leaps that first appear in the first violin and are subsequently picked up by the viola.
Setzer proved to be an effective and emotionally charged leader, literally transforming the previously jet-lagged looking quartet into an ensemble filled with fire and fury that transmitted itself well into the unique music. An interesting aspect of this piece is the extended sixteenth-note passages, which can be heard throughout, that finally culminate in a Vivaldiesque cello solo—complete with all previous motives in different guises—brilliantly played by an obviously excited David Finckel.

On another note in relation to Vivaldi, although Incandescent is in five different parts, Joan Tower’s own explanation of her work as sections rising in “temperature” could not but make me think of what is arguably Vivaldi’s best-known work, The Four Seasons. Everything in Incandescent develops, whether it be rhythms, texture, dynamics, harmony, or register, but each idea presented radiates so strongly within the body of the music as a whole, while still retaining its place within the complete structure. Receiving roaring applause after such an impassioned performance, it seems that the quartet was so focused on what they were doing that they could not even find the stage door among the wood paneling in order to retreat backstage for the intermission!

The final piece on the program was the dazzling third-period Beethoven String Quartet in C-Sharp minor, op. 131. Set in seven movements, this quartet was the first completed after the composer was commissioned to write three string quartets by Prince Nikolas Gallitzin of St. Petersburg in 1822, and this work definitely shows that the earlier commission did not exhaust Beethoven of any of his creative genius. Lasting a total of forty minutes, the quartet is actually an unbroken musical arc that never breaks in its heartfelt intensity, and it comes as no surprise that this was among Beethoven’s favorite quartets.

On the manuscript Beethoven sent to the publishers, he scribbled this message: Zusammen gestohlen aus diesem und jenem (“Stolen and patched together from various bits and pieces”). At first alarming the publishers who thought they were about to market previously discarded scraps, Beethoven aptly explained it was all in good humor, but this is simultaneously a joke and profound truth. The joke lies in the fact that this quartet is one of the most carefully unified pieces ever written, but there is truth in that it is composed of the so-called little “bits and pieces”: fugue, theme and variations, scherzo, and a sonata form being among the most notable.

The opening movement begins with a haunting subject, played by Setzer as if he was performing solo alongside a major orchestra as he faced the audience, closed his eyes, and demonstrated that this music is now part of him. This long, slow fugal movement was somewhat sobering after witnessing a piece like Joan Tower’s Incandescent, but it also seemed as if it was from another world. (I use this analogy because by the time this quartet was composed in 1826, Beethoven had been completely deaf for a decade, and was left writing based on the power of his musical imagination.)

The entire performance of this piece was absolutely brilliant, with the highlights undoubtedly being in the execution of the final three movements (Presto, Adagio quasi un poco Andante, Allegro). The Presto has a fabulous explosive opening after the quiet and calm cantabile section of the previous movement, with the cello and viola playing a train-like quartet note pattern that supports the glorious first violin line. There are sharp pizzicato accents everywhere, and once again, leave it to David Finckel to look like he is having the time of his life. The Adagio was performed with a nice, round tone and seemed so heartfelt for something that literally only lasted twenty-eight measures. Finally, the ultimate Allegro bursts onto the scene with a fierce attack on a unison three octaves deep. Written in sonata form, this highly energetic movement recalls earlier thematic material (especially from the first movement fugue), and the section as a whole is entirely representative of late Beethoven Allegros and Scherzos. Extremely charged until its ending, the music moves furiously on its intense journey, as the music almost leaps to its finale, when three massive chords ultimately reunite each member of the quartet melodically and draw this marvel to its close.

After a well-deserved standing ovation, the Emerson Quartet graciously made their way back to the stage to leave the audience with an encore that personally killed all the wonderful emotions I was feeling after such a supercharged performance. Violinist Philip Setzer announced to the crowd that they were to play "the Bach chorale that ends the Art of the Fugue" (Wenn wir in höchsten Nöthen sein). As if Setzer’s German diction was not bad enough, this is just one of those pieces that should not be performed by a string quartet who just played a mostly Romantic program. Their vibrato and the tone it produced, among other things, was just utterly Romantic in nature and would make any good Baroque scholar cringe. It was a valiant effort, but you know something is wrong when J. S. Bach starts to sound like Felix Mendelssohn.

See the review by Cecelia Porter (Washington Post, May 14).

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