The Emerson String Quartet, renowned for their 47-year chamber music career, performed at the University of Michigan’s Rackham Auditorium on Oct. 1, 2022. The quartet — Philip Setzer (violin), Eugene Drucker (violin), Lawrence Dutton (viola) and Paul Watkins (cello) — performed a series of four pieces from the mid-19th to early 20th century. The pieces included works by composers such as Felix Mendelssohn, Johannes Brahms, George Walker and Antonín Leopold Dvořák. While their expertise as an ensemble was evident, the most gripping aspect of the performance was the way they moved as a group. Their synergy, as if each individual were connected to the rest by an invisible string, captivated and enchanted the audience on that fall night.
The quartet began with Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 1 in E-Flat Major, Opus 12. The piece, a four-part composition of adagios and allegros, was similar to Mendelssohn’s most famous work in A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture (1826). The Emerson String Quartet expertly captured Mendelssohn’s experimental compositional technique in quickly changing paces and timbres (sound colors). While all four parts of String Quartet No. 1 were enthralling, the “canzonetta/allegretto” in the second movement displayed both the skill of the quartet and the beauty of Mendelssohn’s composition particularly well.
The second piece, Brahms’s String Quartet No. 3 in B-flat Major, Opus 67, is a hybrid work. Through his unique adaptation to classical forms, Brahms displayed both the conservative and progressive dual nature of his compositions in this work. The Emerson String Quartet captured the essence of Brahms, while simultaneously adapting the work to their personal strengths as a group. Violist Lawrence Dutton played into the melodious capabilities of the viola, expressing the truly magical quality of the instrument. While the music is lyric-less, the viola seemed to “sing” out to the audience. Perhaps the song was an ode to a past beloved or a representation of wistful nostalgia? Either way, Dutton’s viola certainly had a story to tell.
Following Brahms’s String Quartet No. 3, the Emerson group performed a 20th-century piece: George Walker’s 1946 Lyric for Strings. As the title suggests, Lyric for Strings plays like a song using vocals, with breath-like pauses in the melody. This piece was well juxtaposed against the other choices, in both time period and style. While both Felix Mendelssohn and Johannes Brahms incorporated somber and gleeful themes in their compositions, Walker focused solely on a solemn theme. The only fast-paced (“allegro”) part of the piece lies in the climax, which is short-lived. Marking the middle of the performance, George Walker’s work was well received by the audience, and served as a breather from the complex and lengthy pieces of the 19th-century composers.
The final piece, Antonín Leopold Dvořák’s String Quartet No. 14 in A-flat Major, Opus 105, begins in a manner much like George Walker’s Lyric for Strings. Starting with a somber adagio, similar to that of Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 1, one may assume erroneously that the piece will stay with the solemn theme. However, in the second movement, the pace quickens as the key and rhythms alternate. Moving forward into the third and fourth movements, the melody accelerates incrementally, challenging the listener to match the pace with the musicians. This closing composition proved the immense skill and expertise of the Emerson String Quartet. The piece, a late 19th-century work, emulated many of the Romantic themes of the century but with a unique approach in the A-flat major.
The Emerson String Quartet’s final farewell tour will end in 2023, but their time in Ann Arbor has come to a close. After a long-spanning relationship with the quartet, there will be an undeniable loss felt by both the auditorium team and the University of Michigan community. The quartet’s skill and synergistic approach to chamber music was an extremely rewarding experience to witness.
Daily Arts Contributor Skylar Wallison can be reached at email@example.com.