Above: The Emerson String Quartet (Lawrence Dutton, Paul Watkins, Eugene Drucker, Philip Setzer) in a Lisa Mazzucco photo
Tuesday May 19th, 2015 - Marking the end of their wonderful 2014-2015 season, Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center presented the Emerson String Quartet, joined by violist Paul Neubauer and cellist Colin Carr, in a programme featuring the New York City premiere of a Lowell Liebermann work plus classics from Mozart and Tchaikovsky.
It seems like only yesterday that I opened the CMS 2014-2015 season brochure and found myself anticipating every single one of the concerts listed; how quickly the months have flown by! But a few weeks ago, the Society announced their first Summer Season, and so now we will not have to wait until Autumn to be back at Tully Hall, hearing the great music and incredible artists who make the Society such a valuable part of our lives.
Tonight Alice Tully Hall was packed for this, the second performance of this programme. The Emerson String Quartet, surely one of the greatest chamber ensembles of all time, showed their mastery in works of contrasting styles; their marvelously integrated sound has a richness all its own: there are times you'd swear you're listening to larger orchestra.
Lowell Liebermann's String Quartet No. 5 is one of the finest new works I have heard in recent years; not only is it superbly crafted, but it also draws a deep emotional response - something you can't honestly say about a lot of newer music. Mr. Liebermann, who was seated directly behind us, wrote this brief note for the Playbill: "...I have no doubt that my mindset composing the piece and its resultant overriding elegiac tone was at least partly influenced by any number of depressing/terrifying events of the kind with which we are bombarded daily, in what seems more and more like a world gone mad." That sentence encapsulates to perfection my own feelings as I turn to the news each day and think "Can these things really be happening? Can people really have become so vain, shallow, and heartless? Has humanity lost its soul?" And so we turn to great music, both for consolation and also - sometimes - to weep with us. And that's exactly what this quartet does.
The music wells up from a deep cello phrase to eerie murmurings and a mournful viola theme. There's a muted lullabye and a lamenting theme passed from viola to violin 2. Poignant textures draw us deeper and deeper into the music, and then it starts to scurry. A dance for viola is taken up by the violin; agitation builds. A full-scale canon develops, then more swirling dance music. A buzz, a violin duo, and then calm is restored with a yearning theme. A simply gorgeous violin solo is passed to violin 2 and then to the viola, which sings of anguish. A plucked passage from violin and viola takes us to a violin solo of pristine sadness before the music starts to echo its beginnings, fading in a ghostly glimmer. A profound silence filled the hall as the musicians finished: this evocative and thought-provoking piece had clearly made a deep impression. The composer was called to the stage, as bravos resounded. Both the music and the playing of it left me spell-bound.
I kind of wished there'd been an intermission at that point, the better to remain in reverie; but Mozart's Quintet in E-flat major K 614 brought the esteemed violist Paul Neubauer to the stage with the Emerson for music that was an antidote to the Liebermann and, almost against my will, I was drawn out of my pensive state into a sunnier place.
Though written in Mozart's last year, this Quintet is optimistic in tone and quite jolly in its dance motifs. Its elegant andante, prancing minuet, and jaunty finale were all played with spirit and grace, with much lovely 'communicating' between the players.
For the evening's concluding performance of Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence, Philip Setzer took the 1st violin stand with Mr. Neubauer and cellist Colin Carr adding their rich voices to the Emerson's choir. The sound of this ensemble was really phenomenal, of symphonic resonance.
The Souvenir is a pleasure from first note to last, but just as Tchaikovsky's adagios in Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty strike us most deeply in the heart, it's the second movement of Souvenir that speaks directly to the receptive spirit. It reminded me so much of the composer's Serenade for Strings which Balanchine transformed into his remarkable and eternal ballet masterpiece Serenade. Tonight's performance of this Adagio cantabile was so richly played and so moving: music as consolation.
- Liebermann String Quartet No. 5, Op. 126 (CMS Co-Commission, NY Premiere) (2014)
- Mozart Quintet in E-flat major for Two Violins, Two Violas, and Cello, K. 614 (1791)
- Tchaikovsky Sextet for Two Violins, Two Violas, and Two Cellos, Op. 70, “Souvenir de Florence” (1890; rev. 1891-92)
The Participating Artists: