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Tonality and endurance emerge as strong points of musicians’ performance

Observer Scene | Monday, April 18, 2005

In its debut season, the Leighton Concert Hall has hosted the Chieftains, St. Martin-in-the-Fields Academy, New York Philharmonic and Ronan Tynan – music players all highly capable of producing large-scale, harmonious music.

And yet, it was the tiny Emerson String Quartet that showed Saturday night how special a venue the Leighton is.

Violinists Philip Setzer and Eugene Drucker, violist Lawrence Dutton and cellist David Finckel played for approximately two and a half hours with a sound so precise it actually caused the Leighton to emanate reverberations from the specialized ceiling that hangs above the stage.

The Emerson Quartet’s program consisted of Mozart’s “String Quartet in G Major,” Shostakovich’s “Quartet No. 2 in A Major” and the 40-minute “Quartet in C Sharp Minor” by Beethoven. For encore they performed the ‘Scherzo’ movement of Mendelssohn’s “Quartet for Strings No. 3 in E Flat Major,” part of the Emerson Quartet’s recent Deutsche Grammophon release of all of Mendelssohn’s string quartets.

The evening began with the simpler Mozart quartet. Melodic, almost anticipated music highlighted the first three movements, but the fourth movement flourished magnificently, showcasing Mozart’s orchestral genius and revealing the tonal genius of the Emerson Quartet. Throughout the entire movement they played comfortably, reserving the energy needed for the work’s climax. The audience responded to the movement with hearty applause, perhaps surprising the players with how well they were received.

The effort put forth in the Mozart, however, seemed modest when compared with the opening of the Shostakovich quartet, a lyrical and furious first movement that thoroughly altered the quartet’s charisma. Hair became scuffled and sweat rolled down the cheeks of the players. It was a brilliant follow-up to the lighter Mozart.

The second movement of the Shostakovich was the most moving, with Eugene Drucker playing a terse but beautiful melody to begin and end the movement as the other players accompanied him through long, non-vibrato chords. The movement was very nimble, requiring synchronization and understanding of one’s function in the quartet, because Shostakovich’s quartet did not always treat the four string parts as equals (unlike what one often might hear in a Haydn or Mozart quartet), and so listening to the other parts in the quartet was vital.

The Beethoven quartet, played after intermission, was a true test of endurance, and even Emerson, perhaps the leading quartet in the world, exhibited signs of duress upon its completion.

The “Quartet in C Sharp Minor” consists of seven movements, with the performers going through all seven without pause, and explores a plethora of rhythms, counterpoint and tempii made available in the Classical period of music. The movement began sweetly with the opening Adagio and Allegro movements. By the time the piece reached the Presto movement it seemed to place much heavier demands on the quartet.

Because things built up so greatly in the latter half of the Beethoven, the performance was not as viciously crisp and refined as everything else that evening – but how could it have been? It was clear to the audience the kinds of demands this quartet places on performers, and audience members felt privileged to have experienced a near perfect display of the work. The Leighton appreciated it as well, demonstrating how smaller chamber groups can be just as dynamic in the concert hall as any full-scale orchestra has been this season.

Saturday night at the PAC featured a very revealing and powerful show, and coupled with the master class held that afternoon, it would be a shame if the Emerson Quartet does not come back to Notre Dame in the near future.