When I arrived at Weill Recial Hall on Saturday afternoon, the Emerson String Quartet were already well into their demo session with Ara Guzelimian, former Artistic Dircector at Carnegie and now the Provost and Dean of Juilliard. (I missed the morning sessions, which included a keynote address by author Edmund Morris and dramatic readings of various letters concerning the quartets.) The quartet had arrived on stage with luggage in tow, no doubt having just returned from some far-flung locale.
Their session focused on Beethoven's extremely odd tempo markings in the Op. 18 quartets, using the last movement of No. 6 as an example. They played it three different ways: first, at a Classical-sounding speed (Mozart-like polish); then, as they think it should sound (still shiny, but a bit off at times); and, finally, according to Beethoven's own marking (ridiculously fast). Larry Dutton, the violist, was convinced Beethoven's metronome was broken; Gene Drucker, one of the two violinists, agrees with scholars who believe Beethoven suffered from bi-polar disorder. David Finckel, the cellist, off-handedly played an extended solo from Violin Concerto to point out the similarities between them.
After a short break, they came back to discuss the rest of the quartets, as well as the genesis of their Carnegie cycle: The Quartets in Context. For them, Beethoven resembles Shakespeare in his achievement: he re-invented the format, and left performances of the works open to endless interpretation. So overpowering was their influence - Brahms wrote 20 drafts before finally publishing his first quartet - that it would be well over a century before the next quantum leap was made in the genre, in the form of the six Bartok quartets. (Emerson has recorded both cycles, winning Grammys for each.)
Phil Setzer, the other violinist (Setzer and Drucker alternate on 1st violin), said that the concept of juxtaposing Beethoven with composers who influenced him or were influenced by him was Guzelimian's, who wanted to distinguish this series from the sundry other Beethoven cycles in the concert calendar. (The Emerson themselves have already played two Beethoven cycles this season.) Setzer took charge of the program, which was originally 10 concerts, but got whittled down to 8. "But, I cheated on the first one, which is actually two concerts," he said.
He was referring, of course, to last night's traversal of the six Op. 18 quartets, the first time the Emerson has ever performed them all in a single evening. (Whatever: after last weekend's Lifschitz concert and the BOAC Marathon, this one felt like a Rush Hour Concert.) When I arrived at Stern Hall, the cavernous stage was dramatically lit with a spotlight on the front center, where four music stands had been placed, along with a single chair on a platform. (The Emerson have played standing for several years now, presumably because it gives them the mobility of a soloist.)
They played the quartets in chronological order, rather than in Beethoven's numbering. (B. cheekily put the most provocative quartet - the F Major - first.) From the opening moments of the D Major quartet (Beethoven's No. 3), their absolute precision and burnished tone were on full, glorious display. As were their distinct personalities:
- Gene Drucker: The Apollonian. Dour and ultra-serious.
- Phil Setzer: A bit softer, but still all-business.
- Larry Dutton: Joyous and giddy. The only one who plays with obvious emotion.
- Dave Finckel: The Outsider. Slicked-back hair and goatee make him look like a bit of a cad.
As I noted yesterday, they played through three of the quartets - Nos. 3, 1, and 4 - then took an hour break for dinner before returning with the remaining three. After ten-plus hours down at the Bang on a Can Marathon, it felt like a warm soak in Epsom Salts: as brilliant and adventurous as some of the performances were downtown, nothing can replace the sheer quality of professional musicians at the absolute peak of their abilities.
I did think about trying to dash downtown afterwards to catch the bitter end of BOAC, but the rain was enough to bring me to my senses. Not to mention it would have been like throwing hot fudge on top of a creme brulee. (A full rundown of that event soon to follow.)
If you missed them over the weekend, the Emerson will be at the Apple Store in SoHo tonight, talking not just about Beethoven, but about their entire 30-year career. I'm sure they will also use the occasion to promote the Emerson's new three-CD retrospective, produced jointly by iTunes and their label, Deutsche Grammophon.
P.S. If you're heading to Carnegie anytime this week, be aware that they are now checking all bags, no doubt due to the foiled terrorist plot at JFK. Do yourself a favor and leave the satchel at home: otherwise, it'll cost you $2 per item. (I found out the hard way.)