The Emerson String Quartet played a spectacular concert to a sold-out house for the Princeton University Concerts series 117th season on Thursday, October 6, 2011, providing a promising beginning to an exciting line-up of star-studded concerts.

Emerson String Quartet © Lisa-Marie Mazzucco
Emerson String Quartet
© Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

The Emerson’s performance is one of two concerts presented by PUConcerts which are part of a year of exhibitions, concerts, performances, and lectures to mark the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001 entitled “Memory and the Work of Art.” By collaborating with organizations across Princeton’s campus and beyond, the program truly embodied the broader themes of “Collaboration. Community. Memory” which PUConcerts is seeking to explore in its upcoming season - the first fully planned and executed by Director Marna Seltzer, who assumed the role just over a year-ago.

The Emerson performed three works which the ensemble has not only performed countless times before, but has also recorded. The opening movement of the Beethoven Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 127 - led by Eugene Drucker on Violin I - began with warm, resounding chords which matched the convivial atmosphere felt by everyone in the multi-generational audience. The expansive Adagio - a set of variations - was sensual yet never overly-sentimental, as Beethoven’s variations are often performed. The occasional abrupt shifts in affekt were handled with a sophistication and elegance one might expect from the veteran musicians. The Scherzando vivace was played tightly and briskly, and explosions of pyrotechnics caused the audience to erupt into applause when the movement concluded. Philip Setzer casually reminded the audience, rather than correcting it, that there was still “one more movement,” which was played with almost raucous joy and beautiful resonance that recalled the opening chords of the Maestoso.

The Barber Adagio for the String Quartet was rendered with the care and respect owed to such a war-horse for string quartet. The piece was led admirably by Philip Setzer on Violin I, whose mellow tone befit the work perfectly, in comparison with Drucker’s more silvery, singing tone.

The Shostakovich Quartet No. 5 occupied the second half of the concert program. Also with Setzer on Violin I, the ensemble guided the audience courageously through music which is both revolutionary musically as well as politically. The work was composed when most music that did not glorify the Soviet state was banned. The B-flat Quartet, which is often icy and detached, but always sublimely beautiful, was composed as if Shostakovich could foresee, or at least hoped for, an end to the oppression of the Stalinist regime. The work was premiered by the Beethoven Quartet, an ensemble which premiered all of Shostakovich’s quartets but the first, and there are perhaps few modern quartets who could perform it better than the Emerson, who recorded the composer’s complete quartets in 2000.

The enthusiastic audience heard the E-Major Fugue from Book II of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier (arr. W.A. Mozart) as an encore, another piece which the Emerson has recorded. Though performed admirably, their rendition of Bach does not perhaps equal those of the countless ensembles which have embraced a style of performing these works more akin to what listeners in the 18th-century might have heard. Today, one might expect the Emerson to perform this stile antico fugue by Kappelmeister Bach with clearer textures free of vibrato to highlight its crystalline counterpoint, particularly since at moments in the Beethoven heard earlier during the evening, the ensemble played senza vibrato with extraordinary effect.

A solid foundation for an ambitious concert series which includes the likes of Jonathan Biss, and a not-to-be missed evening with Mark Morris, David Daniels and Martin Katz, the Emerson String Quartet delivered a rewarding evening of diverse pieces which audiences have come to expect from one of today’s most acclaimed chamber ensembles.

The energy in Richardson Auditorium in Alexander Hall was palpable before the concert began, as an eager audience awaited the nine-time Grammy Award winning ensemble to take the stage, with a quarter of the audience composed of students. With under-funded arts organizations across the country grappling to build new patrons, PUConcerts should be lauded for its successful commitment to building young audiences.

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