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Emerson Quartet Sings Lyrical at Hotchkiss

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun May 14th, 2017

The Emerson Quartet: Eugene Drucker, Philip Setzer, Paul Watkins, Lawrence Dutton

The country’s leading quartet, the Emerson String Quartet, performed its first concert at Hotchkiss School’s Katherine M. Elfers Hall due to the generosity of the Robert Crandell Concert Fund. When Fabio Witkowski discovered they had agreed to play, he asked what they would prefer to play. Fabio was told that he could pick the program. Fabio’s delight was a wonder not only to the Quartet, but the whole appreciative audience.

They began with Mozart’s String Quartet No. 19 in C major, K. 465. This unusual quartet was not understood in Mozart’s day—hence it acquired the ridiculous moniker, “Dissonance.” The Adagio Allegro opening is mysterious, haunting, and dreamlike, as if a sleeper awakened from a nightmare. This brief intro gives way to sunny awakening as if a sleeper pulled open curtains or walked out on a balcony to hear birds sing the promise of a new day. The following Andante cantabile dramatizes both the melancholy difficulty and productive joy of working during the day, accompanied by vagrant distractions. The Menuetto Allegro celebrates the satisfaction of work completed, the joy of dinning, and the delight of dancing to music. The concluding Allegro molto recapitulates the themes of day as amused recollection meditates on the day’s beneficence, concluding with the pleasure of well-earned sleep. Such was my poetic, eisegetical fancy. First violinist Philip Setzer excelled forcefully with joy in leading this dramatic piece.

Next was Claude Debussy’s String Quartet in G minor, Op. 10, a work I had recently heard played by the Lark Quartet at Carnegie Hall. I was struck by comparing their more delicate feminine version to the Emerson’s more resonant male performance. I enjoyed both accomplished versions thoroughly, and in both cases noted the difficulty of nuance by the first violinist—here Eugene Drucker—and the importance of the melodic foundation cast by the cellist—here Paul Watkins. My fancy conjured a program of four seasons beginning with the haunting lyricism of winter' harshness, progressing to gentle spring rain, expressed by a predominance of insistent pizzicato. The third movement sounded like languorous summer insects, highlighting the lyrical role of the viola in sunset modality, here played with caressing expression by Lawrence Dutton. The fierce fourth movement conjured the stormy arrival of autmn and the elongation of night.

The program concluded with Antonín Dvořáck’s String Quartet in C Major, Op. 61. While Dvořáck’s 12th String Quartet, nicknamed “American,” is often performed, this 11th is rarely performed or even recorded. Philip Setzer mentioned to me that there had been an excellent recording performed by the Guarneri Quartet. Unfortunately, this recording is long out of print; however, there is a version by the Stamitz Quartet that enjoys limited availability. The unity with which the Emerson String Quartet played was ravishing. It seemed that all the instruments were excitedly conversing about the vagaries of life. They captured that quirky, witty, humorous geniality so characteristic of Dvořáck at his best. I was immensely grateful for their performance and for Fabio’s selection of this little known gem.  

For encore, they played love song number 8 from a set of twelve love songs arranged for quartet taken from Dvořáck’s set of 18 songs originally composed in 1865 entitled Cypresses.

The hall was packed to capacity and the upper balconies had been opened. Fabio opined that the bad weather was just as well because if the weather had been good, there might have been a problem without much solution. The drive back home in our dark spring deluge was nothing like the gentle patter of rain that I had imagined in Debussy’s quartet. But after the amazement of such musical perfection, I could sleep as soundly as Mozart anticipated.