Emerson String Quartet returns to Aspen | AspenTimes.com

Emerson String Quartet returns to Aspen

Susannah Luthi
Special to The Aspen Times
Mitch Jenkins.

The Emerson String Quartet knows how to evoke the voices of composers past and present, leading the Times of London to observe, “With musicians like this there must be some hope for humanity.”

And after spending the 2005 season away from the Aspen Music Festival and School, the ensemble is showcased twice this week ” in the all-Shostakovich program that took place Tuesday and at tonight’s concert at the Benedict Music Tent.

The quartet has a rich history with Shostakovich at the AMFS, where it has been coming most summers since 1983. In 1994, it began making live recordings of the Shostakovich quartet cycle at Aspen’s Harris Concert Hall ” the first use of the venue for commercial recording.

“The audiences responded quite well,” said Eugene Drucker, violinist and a founding member of the quartet. “We won a couple of Grammys for those recordings, and it sort of solidified our relationship with Shostakovich.”

For Tuesday’s performance, the ensemble played Shostakovich’s final three quartets out of the 15 he composed. The concert was part of the festival’s first mini-festival of the 2006 season, Forbidden Music: Suppressed Voices, which probes Stalinist-era restrictions on Soviet composers such as Shostakovich (see related article).

Tonight’s program starts with Beethoven’s String Quartet in F minor, “Serioso,” and Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 3. The quartet will finish with another Shostakovich work ” String Quartet No. 9, from the composer’s middle period.

“If you divide his quartets into early, middle, and late periods, you’ll see that Shostakovich is into something different with the ninth quartet,” Drucker said “It has more direct accessibility, and a loud, powerful, symphonic ending that gives a direct demonstration of Shostakovich’s abilities as an orchestrator.”

As for the Beethoven quartet, which the composer wrote for only a “small circle of connoisseurs,” Drucker describes it as “extremely concise.”

“But it’s no less hefty in its impact and material,” he added. “It’s only 20 minutes long, and so there’s a sense of uncompromising clarity and fiery intensity. It seems to look forward to the 20th century in some way. It’s a good work to pair with the very forceful Shostakovich, and as a contrast to the very sunny, bright and brilliant Mendelssohn piece.”

That Mendelssohn piece was written while the composer was on his honeymoon and, says Drucker, “it’s one that generally breathes high spirits.”

The mood of high spirits should resound with the Emerson String Quartet. Next year, it celebrates its 13th year of collaboration, and the group has six Grammys and an Avery Fisher Prize to its credit (the Emerson is the only quartet to receive the latter honor).

“Phil [Setzer] and I have been playing together for 35 years,” Drucker said. “We evolved gradually as a professional quartet. In the spring of 1977, Larry [Dutton] was invited to audition for the viola, and he’s the one we chose. And two years later, David Finckel, came as our cellist.”

The group, which is in residence at Stony Brook University in New York, spends nine months each year together ” performing, teaching, coaching, learning new commissions, and playing benefit concerts for charities and outreach programs.

“Even on the days we’re not functioning together, we’re still in touch with each other, or with our managements,” Drucker said. “There are a lot of decisions to make ” my mind is occupied with the quartet.”

They perform individually, as well, particularly Finckel. He and his wife, pianist Wu Han, performed together in last weekend’s Chamber Music concert, and will step up again for the 8 p.m. concert on Saturday at Harris Concert Hall.

As for goals for the quartet, which performs in top venues around the world, and which was deemed “one of the most impressive of American string quartets” by The New York Times, Drucker said he doesn’t have anything “generically different” in mind for the immediate future.

“We just want to continue on, make more recordings of parts of the repertoire we haven’t fully explored yet, with recordings from all three centuries of the history of quartets,” he said.

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