If any group can make us hear how radical and innovative Ludwig van Beethoven’s music is, it’s the Emerson String Quartet, a regular at Chamber Music Northwest. This year marks their 11th season at the summer festival; they’ll be back for more Portland concerts throughout 2016-17.
The group played two of Beethoven’s early string quartets: String Quartet in G Major, Op. 18, No. 2 and String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 18, No. 6. The Beethoven pieces alternated with Joseph Haydn’s quartets from his String Quartet in C Major, Op. 76, No. 3 (“Emperor”)” and String Quartet in E-Flat Major, Op. 76, No. 6.
The Sunday concert exceeded two hours, not including intermission, at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall in the last of a three-performance program called “Passing the Torch.” The Grammy Award-winners are CMNW’s Artists-in-Residence for the 2016-17 season. Along with CMNW artistic director David Shifrin, they came up with the idea of the centerpiece three-performance Haydn-Beethoven program. The title speaks to the relationship between the older Haydn and Beethoven, and to the festival’s efforts to mentor “protégé” musicians.
Adding fuel to the Emerson program, Beethoven’s quartets have been showcased throughout CMNW’s five-week run this summer.
Haydn’s Opus 76 and Beethoven’s Opus 18 were written within four years of each other in the late 1790s and early 1800s. Beethoven was Haydn’s pupil for two years when he was in his 20s, and he was 38 years younger than Haydn, who is credited with inventing the string quartet. Beethoven had no intention of becoming a mini-Haydn.
Beethoven messed around with Papa Haydn’s conventions and took the string quartet to new place. The pieces on Sunday were his early quartets, keep in mind. His middle and late quartets are more astoundingly innovative.
Emerson Quartet has played Beethoven and Haydn for 40 years. Aside from getting progressively better and more famous since they started in 1976—and turning into mentors instead of mentees of the Julliard and Guarneri quartets, as they were at the beginning of their careers—the only major change in personnel involved cellist Paul Watkins taking over from David Finkel in 2013. Also, the musicians (other than cellist Watkins who sits on a riser) perform standing up rather than sitting down, as they did their first 25 years. If they were to make it to the next 25 years (after the upright quarter-century), they would play lying down, violist Lawrence Dutton told Oregon Arts Watch writer Alice Hardesty in a July 11 story.
These guys joke around, but not on stage.
The quartet’s members looked like buttoned-up IBM managers in their black suits and white shirts—and violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer removed their glasses before they took their bows—but they didn’t sound like anyone in the conservative business world. Their instruments blend exquisitely, their bows rise and fall together, they pass around the glory. Drucker and Setzer, who founded the quartet shortly after college, trade off the first-violin position, one of the first groups to do so. (The Orion String Quartet does this, too, with brothers Todd and Daniel Phillips taking turns on the first violin.)
Named for American writer/philosopher/transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, the quartet performed 12 quartets over July 15, 16 and 17—six by Haydn, six by Beethoven. They did a similar gig earlier this year at Lincoln Hall in New York City.
So much material requires immense practice and concentration, and it was clear the Emerson players were relieved to finish the last quartet Sunday: Beethoven’s String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op 18, No. 6. Beethoven marked this piece’s final movement with the word, “melancholy,” and the directive to play it “with greatest delicacy.” The movement begins with a slow despondency and ends in a kind of surprise with a dancelike, upbeat and buoyant finale.
There’s no anticipating Beethoven.