A Concert and a Q & A Session
Colleges typically hold “concert series” throughout the school year, usually to be more cultural and well-rounded. I go for the sake of witnessing art and always, I find two types of audience members. One is obviously the student. Like me, the student goes to the concert because he or she wants to go. Attire is not paramount. Jeans. Wrinkled jacket. A large backpack filled with books from the library. Then there is the other audience member, the older more “sophisticated” listener who is well-groomed and looks like he or she has been recently fitted by the law firm. Pearls. Heirloom earrings. Discretely expensive watch. Silk ties. These people find the intermission vastly interesting because its optimal time to “network” with others of their kind.
These two types of audience members do not naturally go together. An older couple behind me pointed to my row which coincidentally seated many college students and sneered, “That must be where all the kids sit.” I was more than vaguely offended and had half the mind to turn around and ask, “How many times have you heard the quartet? Do you have any of their recordings? Have you even heard of them before?” College students aren’t ignorant kids who go to a cultural event because mommy and daddy told them to.
At any rate, tonight’s concert by the Emerson String Quartet (violins–Eugene Drucker, Philip Setzer; viola–Lawrence Dutton; cello–David Finckel) was absolutely fabulous. I had seen them in concert before as well as possessing their recordings of the Beethoven quartets so I am, for a lack of a better word, a fan. The Emerson String Quartet, stationed in New York, is one of the best in the United States let alone the world. I think my own chamber music appreciation is helped by the fact that I’m a musician and have played in a quartet before.
The program was actually quite diverse. The opening was one of Haydn‘s unfinished quartets (String Quartet No. 68 in D minor, Op. 103 Hob. III: 83) which although was quite experimental for Haydn in his doddering old age sounded rather conventional to modern ears. It had a “nice melody” but sounded more like warm-up material for the more demanding pieces ahead.
The Quartet No. 9 in E-flat Major, Op. 117 written by Shostakovich for his very young third wife was technically intense and very energetic. It was moody and I loved the interaction the members of the quartet had with each other–the visual cues and the creative flairs. One could easily tell they were really immersed in Shostakovich’s world and it wasn’t a surprise to find out they had done a large stage adaptation of Shostakovich’s work not so long before.
My favorite piece of the entire program was Debussy‘s Quartet in G minor, Op. 10. I have a recording of this piece by the Keller Quartet and it is really gorgeous. Listening to the piece in concert is even better–the music itself sounds alive and pulsating with its myriad melodies all intermingled with each other. I literally almost cried.
The encore was a middle movement of Mendelssohn‘s Quartet Op. 13. This little ditty was rather humorous and reminded me of jesters roaming among the stalls of a Renaissance fair. It was actually rather surprising–most of the pieces that I’ve heard before by Mendelssohn are a lot darker and romantic. Perhaps he is not as one-sided as I thought he was.
There was a question and answer session after the concert which I will semi-reproduce here (considerably edited since I can’t remember everything):
Audience Question: Why were you (the violin and viola players) standing up?
Emerson String Quartet: When we were playing for a Haydn festival, we found that it worked a lot better if we, the fiddle players, stood up. Of course, that was three hours long and during rehearsals we got to sit down but standing up gives us a lot more freedom. It allows for more expression when we’re playing. When Joshua Bell comes [to Dartmouth] ask him that question and he’ll probably tell you the same thing.
AQ: Why did you choose to name yourself the Emerson String Quartet? I noticed that none of you are named Emerson.
ESQ: We named the quartet after Ralph Waldo Emerson because he was an American artist who echoed a lot of the same goals we have for creativity and philosophy. No, we haven’t read all his works or analyzed his essays. We don’t own copies of all his poetry. Another reason is that “Emerson” is also easy to remember and easier to publicize.
AQ: Do you play any of the Shostakovich backwards?
ESQ: No. Do you? [Laughs] Do you mean literally playing the last note and back or changing the order of the movements? We can play the movements in a different order. Sometimes experimentally we might try playing a piece facing away from each other. You don’t get any visual cues but you can feel how the music is moving instead.
AQ: Is your heart more into Shostakovich or Mendelssohn?
ESQ: It’s difficult to say; they are both of very different characters. Perhaps if we had played the stormy first movement of the Mendelssohn (Op. 13) we could compare. Our hearts are into both of them. We’re also very much into whoever we are working on most recently. We just finished a stage production of some Shostakovich pieces (broadcast on the BBC) and are currently working on a compilation of Mendelssohn quartets with an octet as a bonus.
AQ: How much do you think Debussy owed to César Franck?
ESQ: Debussy owed Frank a lot actually, but even in his earlier work, you can already see his own style coming through.
AQ: How do you decide on a program?
ESQ: (answered by Philip Setzer, violinist) I actually decide on the programs. In our earlier years, we might choose certain pieces because it would get us a gig, but nowadays we pick pieces that we like, want to do, and to bring it to an audience. We also perform pieces that we will record in the future. Recording is much different than playing in a concert, but performing a piece first gives us preparation for the recording. Also we play pieces that we have recorded to publicize the records we have made, so yes, there is the business side.
For the program, I draw up a list of pieces to perform for the season. I send it out to the other members of the quartet for suggestions and comments and then change the list accordingly. There are some places where we have several concert series so I need to make sure that we’re not repeating any of the pieces. Then we send out a list of suggested pieces to the program coordinators of the venues and they get a say in what gets performed. On their part, it’s a lot like picking different items on a Chinese menu.