Emerson String Quartet returned to Dartmouth on Saturday

by Lauren Segal | 10/4/17 7:10pm

The Emerson String Quartet returned to the Hopkins Center for the Arts Sept. 30, bringing to Dartmouth adaptations of music from 18th century Beethoven to emergent 21st century composers. Renowned for their insight and innovative sound, the Emersons hoped to transport audiences to musical realms unlike even past performances at this venue.  

With a history of playing together for just over 40 years, the Emerson Quartet has established its prominence in the world of chamber music, boasting a repertoire of more than 30 recordings, nine Grammy Awards, three Gramophone Awards and Musical America’s title of “Ensemble of the Year” for 2000. The quartet features cellist Paul Watkins, violist Lawrence Dutton and violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer.  

Despite having graced the Dartmouth stage in 2014, the Emerson String Quartet’s latest performance intended to deliver an experience entirely different from previous programs. A certain technical aspect that set this performance apart from others was the introduction of British cellist Paul Watkins in replacement of long-time Emerson cellist David Finckel in 2013. In terms of the program itself, however, Saturday’s performance delved into a contemporary piece by British composer Mark-Anthony Turnage, that represented a distinct departure from the classical quartets that have previously been featured at the Hop.

Drucker said that the quartet’s program covered a musical span of approximately 245 years, yet the novelty of more contemporary pieces is mirrored in classical works. 

“Even a piece we have been playing for some time has to feel, on some level, like it’s happening at that moment and not simply like it’s a classic we’re pulling out of a drawer and presenting to the audience,” Drucker said.

Turnage, who has a musical history that ranges from full-length operas to chamber pieces, composed “Shroud” in 2016 on a commission from an international consortium. “Shroud” embodies Turnage’s reputation of merging components of classical and jazz music, weaving together modernity and tradition. The Emersons seek to exemplify the same concept on Saturday through “Shroud” as well as works from Mozart and Beethoven.   

Saturday’s program featured “Mozart’s String Quartet No. 17 in B-flat Major, K. 458,” nicknamed “The Hunt,” which has yet to be performed at Dartmouth. 

Beethoven’s “String Quartet No. 14, Op. 131 in C-sharp Minor” also made an appearance — a piece famous for being a favorite of Beethoven himself according to Eddie Pyun ’18, a cellist and member of the Dartmouth Symphony Orchestra, who extolled the work.

“The Beethoven quartet, which is the last piece on the program, is definitely the center piece,” Pyun said. “Beethoven, perhaps more than most composers, used the genre of the string quartet as a deeply personal mode of expression throughout his entire composing career.”

Hop director of programming Margaret Lawrence said the amalgamation of classical and contemporary music in the Emerson’s latest program should remind audiences of the constant evolution of classical music. 

“We have an ongoing commitment to presenting classical music,” Lawrence said. “I think it is important for us to remind audiences that new music is being written all the time. Music of the 21st century is still classical and it is not dead; it is very much a living, evolving art.”

The Emerson String Quartet hoped to destroy the notion that classical music remains crystallized in the past through Saturday’s performance. Drucker explained that the program offered an opportunity to experience myriad musical expressions.

“It is a way of coming into contact with the minds of two of the greatest composers who ever lived and also a very talented composer of this age,” Drucker said. “We believe strongly that the term ‘classical music’ should not connote that this is dusty old music being taken out of a glass case at a museum and temporarily aired. For us, this music is alive. The term ‘classical,’ in its connotation nowadays, is a bit misleading, as it makes people think of old music that is not very flexible.”

Lawrence highlighted the opportunity to experience live music. 

“The thing about live performance is that it is simultaneously being created and consumed at the same time,” Lawrence said. “Unlike a digital recording, it’s gone, there’s no physical, tangible trace of it once it’s over. But what is there is not only a lot of new information for both your mind and soul, but a sense of having entered into a relationship with a roomful of 900 people and a particular musical tradition that is both beautiful and unique.” 

The performance aimed to not only expand the horizons of chamber music beyond that of the past, but also to revive classical masterpieces and bring the sense of experimentation to life.

“We try to convey the feeling that the music is unfolding at that very instant,” Drucker said. “Performers try to achieve a balance between the assurance that the music itself is great and the fact that it comes to life anew each time that it is performed. It is a living, breathing thing.”