Music News & Reviews

String quartet greater than sum of its parts

The Emerson String Quartet — from left, violinists David Finckel and Philip Setzer, violist Lawrence Dutton (seated) and cellist Eugene Drucker — performed Thursday night at Centre College.
The Emerson String Quartet — from left, violinists David Finckel and Philip Setzer, violist Lawrence Dutton (seated) and cellist Eugene Drucker — performed Thursday night at Centre College.

DANVILLE — The parade of big-name classical musicians through Central Kentucky this season continued at Centre College on Thursday night with the Emerson String Quartet's relaxed and authoritative performance at the Norton Center for the Arts' Newlin Hall.

One of the hallmarks of this quartet is the individuality each player brings to his part, an absorbing feature of the performance throughout the night. From the beginning of Mozart's F-major quartet, K. 590, violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violist Lawrence Dutton and cellist David Finckel answered each other's musical phrases distinctively, as if in a lively conversation. In the slow second movement, Drucker led the group's nuances beautifully, and the subsequent minuet bustled with energy and rhythmic precision. The quartet ended with an impressive display of virtuosic ensemble playing by the four distinct musical personalities.

The Emerson has distinguished itself in recent years with its Grammy Award-winning traversal of the quartets by the Russian master Dmitri Shostakovich. Its performance of his Quartet No. 8, Op. 110, was the highlight of the evening. This dramatic work, composed in 1960 to memorialize victims of fascism and war, unfolds in five movements without a break, and captivated this near-capacity audience from the beginning, with a hypnotic steady drone of the lower instruments underneath the melody played by Drucker in a hollow, flute-like color.

Later passages in the second movement drew impassioned playing from Dutton in particular, and Finckel treated the treble melody in the fourth movement with extraordinary sensitivity. In fact, Dutton brought uncommon expressiveness to the viola parts throughout the evening, playing with a wide variety of timbres and touches to make the most out of what is usually the least showy part in string quartets.

Finckel, the only seated member of the group, seemed to be the real leader, through his eye contact with the other players and his physical gesturing of cues and phrasings. It was a joy to watch this cellist bring the music to life with his facial and body expressions and his interaction with his colleagues.

After intermission, the Emerson played a lovely evanescent opening to Antonin Dvorak's C-major quartet, Op. 61, as if melting from frozen silence into sound, but they were interrupted only several measures into the piece by the stage lights going dark. The performers and audience were left in total blackness for some time, and when the lights finally did come up, they were the house lights and not the stage lights. Eventually, the concert resumed in full auditorium lighting, but not before a couple of quips from Setzer, who first asked, "Did this happen with the Vienna Philharmonic?" and then wondered aloud, "Should we start where we left off?"

Having set the audience at ease with laughter, the Emerson did recommence the Dvorak piece from the beginning, but the quartet was a little rattled by the disruption. The bumpy start resulted in some suspect tuning and imprecise ensemble in isolated passages, but by the last movement, the details were once again firmly in place.

The audience received the performance with warm, sustained applause, some of which is also surely due the Norton Center administration for its steady provision of musical feasts for the region, served up by some of the greatest talents in the world.