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REVIEW: The Emerson String Quartet Plays The Conrad on Their Farewell Season Tour

San Diego Story

Kenneth Herman

April 18, 2023


In 1976, four string players studying at the Juilliard School formed the Emerson Quartet. Now, after 47 years of performing and touring, this iconic American string quartet is retiring. Fortunately for San Diego, the La Jolla Music Society brought them to the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center Sunday as part of the quartet’s Farewell Season tour.

Violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer have been with the quartet from the beginning, while cellist Paul Watkins and violist Lawrence Dutton have joined Emerson more recently. An ensemble of Emerson’s stature has a following, of course, so several rows of extra chairs were set up on the stage of The Conrad to accommodate the overflow crowd.

Emerson’s virtues are not covert: they make their fleet, elegantly balanced ensemble playing look easy, but, of course, it is anything but. Every shred of phrasing has been carefully considered and is judiciously delivered; the players shape the dramatic impulse of every movement with acute stylistic insight. Emerson’s warm sonority holds the middle ground between the lush Old World timbre of European string quartets that toured the U.S. in the 1950s and the cool, pristine sound of the Tokyo Quartet in its heyday.

My sole reservation about Sunday’s Emerson visit was their programming, which was limited to quartets by Germanic 19th-century composers: Felix Mendelssohn, Johannes Brahms, and Antonin Dvořák. Of course Dvořák was Czech, but he shared the harmonic vocabulary of his contemporary Brahms. While I listened to this evening of Romantic era music, I kept thinking of the stylistic breadth of the string quartet repertory: from Haydn and Mozart to Debussy, Bartók, Barber, Shostakovich, and Rouse.

It was as if a friend who is also a skilled chef had invited me to a three-course dinner—and discovering that every course was meat and potatoes!

Opening with Mendelssohn’s early String Quartet n E-flat Major, Op. 12, had the same effect of a Rossini opera overture opening a symphony concert: cheerful but unsurprising. In the Canzonetta, Drucker and Setzer deftly matched their arabesques—the composer’s characteristic fanciful elfin themes—and Drucker offered an earnest cantabile solo in the Andante espressivo. The quartet’s vibrant, strongly accented final movement made the modest Mendelssohn journey worthwhile, although who knows what the composer intended with the quiet coda that ends the vivacious finale?

Brahms’ String Quartet in B-flat major, Op. 67, happily anchored Emerson’s program, and the quartet gave it the drive and spirit it needed. The unusual first movement, marked Vivace, displays jaunty, folk-like themes, although they are all the composer’s, and with them Emerson could not have been more persuasive. Setzer communicated the allure of the second movement’s first violin solo, giving it the irresistible charm of the composer’s cherished piano Intermezzos. Dutton equaled his feat with exciting, ardent accounts of the lavish viola solos in the third movement. And I do not recall hearing move deft cello pizzicato phrases than those provided by Watkins in the final movement.

Few serious composers were possessed of the buoyant optimism that was Dvořák’s by nature, and his String Quartet in A-flat major, Op.105 is a testament to his consistent confident outlook. Perhaps Emerson chose it as their conclusion for their Farewell Season program to signify their own satisfaction of a musical career well spent. Emerson gave this Dvořák quartet the heartfelt conviction as well as the technical finesse it deserves.

They were so devoted to Dvořák, their sole encore was a short piece by the Czech composer: his Cypress No. 7.

This concert was presented by the La Jolla Music Society on Sunday, April 16, 2023, at the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center in La Jolla.