Emerson Quartet performs with intensity and passion

by Christine Huggins | 10/27/03 6:00am

Dartmouth College was lucky to be graced with the presence of the world-renowned Emerson Quartet this past Thursday. With six Grammy awards to their name, the Quartet has come a long way since it was formed in 1976.

Violin powerhouses Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer couple their talent with violist Lawrence Dutton and cellist David Finckel for a result that is truly Grammy-worthy.

Thursday night's performance was packed with both Hanover residents and college students, and it's safe to say nobody in the audience was disappointed. The Emerson Quartet delivered a smashing performance.

The group started out with String Quartet No. 68 in D minor, Op. 103 by Franz Joseph Haydn, which is a melodic tune that seems to wash over the listener in waves. The piece seemed to convey a lot of longing and desire, and you could see couples in the audience grasp hands as the music hit them.

The next performance was of Quartet No. 9 in E-flat Major, Op. 117 by Dimitri Shostakovich. If it had lyrics, they would definitely have been about love. The performance was wrought with generous amounts of romance and mystery.

One could almost envision a lover waiting for his mistress in some misty courtyard drenched with moonlight. The composition was one of longing coupled with intense passion, as reflected by the Quartet's shift from a slow, legato pace to a fast, frenzied one.

Following this, there was a brief intermission. During the break, the quartet was probably backstage gathering its creative strength for the next number -- the challenging Quartet in G minor, Op. 10 by Claude Debussy.

Dark, intense and scary, this number was a cross between disillusioned Emily Dickenson poetry, the score from "Jaws" and the Headless Horseman's gallop in "Sleepy Hollow." If you are ever confused, tormented or anguished, this would be the music to fit your mood.

The melody was manic, even schizophrenic, because of all the conflicting themes and variations in tempo.

The cello and viola would hold dissonant notes while the violin played an almost gypsy-like melody on top of the chord. This dissonance created tension that built and built while you waited in suspense to hear what would happen next.

Then suddenly, the Quartet would break into rapid playing like a swarm of bees, frenetically moving from note to note in a crescendoed rhythm.

Not only did the pace of the piece change, but the mood also. To call it bittersweet is not entirely accurate. Bitter and sweet were two distinctly different flavors.

The music would almost resolve into major chords, and the listener is waiting for this resolution, this escape from the depressing frenzy.

But, alas, when you almost think the song will shift from dark to light, the composer throws the song back into the shadows of minor. This little hint of light music makes the dark music all the darker.

The piece's intensity was not only evident by listening but by watching the musicians themselves. You wouldn't think classical instruments and refined tuxedos would give way for passionate, out of control expression, but they do.

Jerking heads, swaying bodies and bowing so intense you thought the strings might snap, all indicated that the Emerson Quartet was completely "feeling the music." And by the rapt expressions and pent up breath of the audience, it was evident that they were feeling the music too.

So, if the Debussy composition was so dark and depressing why was it the closer? Why not end on a happy note?

That's what I was wondering through the first few minutes. The Emerson Quartet has a huge repertoire, why did they choose this song of all songs to end the show?

The answer is probably because Debussy's Quartet in G minor is a showcase of true talent. The song demonstrates musicianship mainly because it requires a depth of interpretation and a plethora of technical skill. It is also an emotionally exhausting piece. It was a catharsis and a fitting end to a moving program.

The Emerson Quartet gave a good show, short but sweet. Short enough to keep the audience captivated, but long enough for them to savor the music.

They were impressive in their selection, in their talent and in their passion. Dartmouth was lucky to have had them here, and those that actually attended were graced with pure music brought to life by true masters.