The Emerson String Quartet brings on the Berg

The string quartet teases out connections between seemingly disparate scores
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Although they have been renowned for making transcendental music ever since their inception in 1976, the members of the Emerson String Quartet don’t necessarily put that much weight on their name, which is derived from the 19th-century transcendentalist philosopher and literary giant Ralph Waldo Emerson.

“So as far as his ideals are concerned, I think that we understood them in a fairly simplistic way,” says violinist Eugene Drucker, a founding member of the group. Reached at home in New York City, he draws a link between Emersonian notions of democracy and the chamber-music ideals of “a common goal, and being true to oneself”.

“These are all worthy goals, certainly, and I think that we’ve staked out some of our own territory in the chamber-music world,” he says. “We didn’t want to let one person’s ego lord it over the other people in the group, so we were one of the first groups that switched, regularly, first and second violins within each concert. So just in a very general and perhaps superficial way we reflected some of the ideals of Emerson. But I can’t claim that any of us is a real expert in his philosophy.”

As musical scholars, however, all four performers are quite capable of teasing out connections between seemingly disparate scores, as they will in their upcoming Friends of Chamber Music concert—their last in Vancouver with long-time cellist David Finckel. (Rounding out the quartet are violinist Philip Setzer and violist Lawrence Dutton.)

On the program are Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Quartet in D Major, K.499, Anton Dvorák’s Quartet in D Minor, and Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite, a Second Viennese School masterpiece that might seem out of sorts with the earlier works. If it is, though, that doesn’t bother Drucker.

“I think that some of our programs are guided by the principle of contrast, and others by greater similarities between the pieces,” he says. “But within that general dichotomy I think you can also find that some pieces that are very disparate on the surface have surprising similarities that come to light when you juxtapose them. And perhaps at other times pieces that seem similar on the surface, you realize that they are going in very different directions. But we have never played these two pieces right next to each other, the Mozart and the Berg, so I’ll find out at the concert what the exact connection between them might be.”

Playing the Berg—which the Emersons haven’t attempted for more than a decade—will certainly be an enjoyable challenge. Not only are its six movements variously jovial, loving, ecstatic, mysterious, and even delirious, its tempo markings owe more to Berg’s numerological obsessions than to practicality. And then there’s the romantic angle: the Lyric Suite contains many coded allusions to Berg’s lover Hanna Fuchs-Robettin, plus a hidden setting of a Charles Baudelaire poem—facts the composer’s widow suppressed until her own death, 40 years after his.

“It’s a piece of great emotional openness and, at times, excess,” says Drucker. “And when I say ‘excess’, I don’t mean that in a pejorative way, but it’s music that is spilling over with emotion. And we’ll try to project that feeling.” 

The Emerson String Quartet plays a matinee at the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre on Sunday (February 3).

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