Emerson String Quartet at Tanglewood, Friday, June 26, 8 p.m. Ozawa Hall

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The Emerson String Quartet. Not the kind of guys you want to run into in a dark alley.
The Emerson String Quartet. Not the kind of guys you want to run into in a dark alley.

Emerson String Quartet
Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer violins, Lawrence Dutton viola, David Finckel cello, with Paul Neubauer, viola

Ives, Quartet No. 1
Dvořák, Quartet No. 12 in F, Op. 96, “The American”
Dvořák, Adagio, from Quartet, Op. 11
Dvořák, String Quintet No. 3 in E-flat, Op. 97, “American”

Next week the Tanglewood grounds will be teeming with people, who will have come to usher in summer season, dress up a little, enjoy fireworks, and to hear some more than promising Tchaikovsky, a composer Levine understands well…and it’s a sin to miss a performance by Yefim Bronfman. The pre-season weekend will also have had its crowd, fans of Garrison Keillor’s meticulously branded lapsarian humor and self-consciously down-to-earth American music. In this first weekend the traditional Prairie Home Companion is bookended with chamber music, this year two of the most established American string quartets, the Emerson and the Juilliard, both with their own long histories at Tanglewood: while the Emersionians are beginning to suggest something pleasantly avuncular, the Juilliard are true patriarchs, having secured a place in the repertory for Bartók’s string quartets, not to mention those of the Second Vienna School, already before 1950.

The very first evening, apart from the Emerson’s tightly integrated program—brilliantly played—the Berkshires’ unpredictable June weather worked some magic of its own. There were sudden alternations of darkness and sunlight, bursts of rain, and huge storm-clouds shifting about in the sky. Before and during the concert it remained mercifully dry, and the thunderclouds did no more than clear their throats at rare intervals through the performance. During the intermission the grounds offered a secret, fleeting view of their most beautiful aspect. A moist fragrance filled the air among clouds of mist, as the last rays of tawny and pink light from the sunset tinted the strange, organic forms of the clouds and enveloped the vegetation with deep blue, purple, and green shadows.

The concert, however, was all about music—the music of a particular time and place, the United States in the 1890’s, with a telling afterthought in the late 1930’s. The linch-pin of the program was Charles Ives’ First String Quartet. To listen to the Emerson’s performance you would not so easily realize that Ives first wrote the work as a class exercise during his sophomore year at Yale. The first movement is one of his most conservative efforts, entirely within the bounds of 19th century European tradition. One can detect a bit of padding here and there and the counterpoint is a bit pedantic, but that has always been the way of American composers. It is interesting to note that, when the First Quartet had its public premiere in 1943, the first movement was omitted. Ives reworked the last three later, and adapted some material for other works. Hence, in 1943, they would have been recognizable to the few people who knew his music. All the music is recognizably American,  taking counterpoint in earnest and incorporating hymn tunes current in American Protestant liturgy. How could this early work Ives wrote for his obsessively Eurocentric professor have anything to do with Dvořák? He wrote it only two years after the Czech master gratefully returned to his native country after some two-and-a-half years as director of the National Conservatory of Music of America. This populist institution, founded in 1885, was the brainchild of Mrs. Jeannette Meyers Thurber. Its purpose was to foster an inherently American national style of composition. She invited Dvořák to be its director, offering him an enormous salary because of his reputation as a nationalist composer, supposedly the specialist who could apply his expertise to developing an American national style. He took the job description seriously and investigated American musical traditions with some thoroughness, at least without leaving his genteel New York surroundings. He was, we are told, overjoyed to spend a summer in a Czech settlement in Iowa, with some of his family around him, and here he composed his “American” Quartet and began the Quintet, Which is less well known today. Mrs. Thurber’s vision was to have her Conservatory adopted by the U.S. government and moved to Washington D.C. with branches throughout the country. This never happened, and it led a precarious existence in New York, mostly at her husband’s expense, until is effectively ceased operations around 1930. Mr Thurber in fact found himself on the verge of bankruptcy during Dvořák’s tenure. With his salary checks in arrears, Dvořák decided to return home. The Dvořákian elements of Ives’ First Quartet could well have been his way of thumbing his nose at his Brahmin professor, Horatio Parker, who was disgusted by such plebeian materials as hymn tunes, Negro spirituals, etc. In any case the Emerson Quartet put their all into it, without a hint of condescension, and they made the quartet sound confident and strong.

The Emerson’s performance of Dvořák’s familiar “American Quartet” was like no other I’ve ever heard—which is a good thing, an excellent thing, even. The essential characteristic of their musicianship is the fact that they are four great solo players who have come together to play as a string quartet. Aided by the freedom of their standing posture—except for Mr. Finckel, of course, who needs no extra freedom anyway—they played as four independent intellects and musicians, each with his own individual color and style, who manage to play perfectly together as an ensemble. The autonomy of the four parts made the old “American”  absolutely fascinating for their variety of color and their penetration of Dvořák’s compositional thinking. It felt almost as if the composer himself were improvising at the piano. They showed the same insight in their performance of Barber’s Adagio for String Quartet. This is most definitely the way to hear it, and the musicians focused on the rigor of Barber’s counterpoint. The music never got soppy or reminded one of somnabulism, as the usual orchestral performance does.

Dvořák’s String Quintet in E Flat occupied the entire second half of the program, and it was a most welcome adjunct to the quartet. It is seriously enlightening to hear two sides of his exploration of American musical idiom in one program. An expansive, tuneful work, it lacks some of the many-sidedness of the quartet, but not much, and the slow movement variations are marvellous. They showed the composer’s consummate gift in this form. As a movement it has a coherence and flow, in spite of the inherent contrasts of the variation form. In this and other movements there were magnificent solo passages for all five players, especially the viola, from which the great Lawrence Dutton reaped most of the benefit (I’d love to hear his play Harold in Italy.), although guest Paul Neubauer had plenty of scope as well. The main theme of the finale is a catchy example of the Scotch snap, a familiar feature of American vernacular music. Doubtless the composer intended an allusion to a genial popular idiom, but the constant recurrence of the bumptious theme recalls the dementia of Beethoven’s treatment of similar tunes in his late quartets. The Emersonians clearly understaood this and had great fun with it, sending their audience off whistling, while Horatio Parker rolled in his grave.

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