Emerson String Quartet transcends musicianship | AspenTimes.com

Emerson String Quartet transcends musicianship

Eben Harrell
Aspen Times Staff Writer

The great American philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson played an integral role in the foundation of the philosophy of “American pragmatism.” This system tried to fuse American industry with serious philosophy. To Emerson, human faculty and talent was of supreme importance, but only if that talent was in service of an idea, a way of life.

The Emerson String Quartet was formed in 1976, amid the celebrations that accompanied America’s bicentennial anniversary. Founding violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Seltzer, who were later joined by violist Lawrence Dutton and cellist David Finckel, named the quartet after America’s most famous philosopher, and the name seems appropriate.

All four musicians in the quartet are virtuosi. Yet like their namesake, the members of the Emerson Quartet believe that talent alone is insufficient. Their success has come through a form of sacrifice and devotion; when the Emerson plays together, each of the members puts his individual musicianship in service of a coherent and often dazzling interpretation.

Most recently, this commitment to interpretation has taken the form of what Wagner would have called Gesamtkunstwerk, the fusion of different art forms to enhance musical expression. The group recently collaborated on a multimedia theater performance of Shostakovich’s last quartet with the groundbreaking dance troupe Theatre de Complicite. They will soon give a performance at New York’s Lincoln Center based on the work of string theory physics, as laid out in Brian Green’s “The Elegant Universe,” that will connect the elegance of music and physics as unifying structures. Canadian director Robert Le Page, who has directed the famous Cirque de Soleil, will arrange the performance.

The quartet’s success has been remarkable. Time magazine has named them America’s greatest quartet. The Emerson sells out houses around the world, and the music community showed their respect, honoring them with two Gramophone and six Grammy awards, one of which, in 1997, was awarded for the quartet’s ambitious recording of the complete Beethoven quartets.

Opening the Aspen Music Festival and School’s Winter Artist Recital Series with a concert on Tuesday, Jan. 20, at Harris Hall, the quartet will play what is widely considered to be Beethoven’s greatest quartet, Opus 131 in C sharp minor. The piece, composed of seven movements, is performed continuously. It starts inconspicuously enough, with a pleasing, fugal Adagio that violist Lawrence Dutton calls “heavenly” to listen to. By the end of the piece, however, the key notes of the opening fugue have been inverted and tormented, leaving a haunted sense of finality. The feeling is of a journey finally and irrevocably at its end.

“It is a great, great effort to perform the piece,” said violist Dutton. “First off, C sharp minor is a key that’s just tough for string instrumentalists to play. But more than that, it’s the arc of the piece. I think the audience picks up on it; the journey of the piece is just incredible.”

Also on the program is a quartet by the modern American composer Ned Rorem. The performance will commemorate Rorem’s 80th birthday and his nearly 60 years of service to American classical music. Rorem, who is best known for his song cycles for voice and piano, was commissioned to write the piece for the Emerson Quartet. The piece is broken into 10 movements, all of which take inspiration from Picasso paintings.

Surprisingly for a group that is interested in crossing the boundaries between art forms, the quartet has paid little attention to the paintings that provided the inspiration for the work. According to Dutton, the musicians have kept their noses close to the score, working to find an interpretation that pays honor to the vocal elements of the piece.

“I think because of Rorem’s song background, the quartet is like 10 songs, all of which are meditations on Picasso’s paintings,” Dutton said. “But we haven’t taken much from the paintings. Everyone has their own imagination. The connections are too abstract. In the end, the paintings are important because they provided the inspiration for the composition of the music, which stands on its own.”

Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is eharrell@aspentimes.com