of purpose: the Emerson String Quartet.
College Memorial Chapel, April 27
During a nearly four-decade span, a remarkable array of performers
has held forth in Union College’s Memorial Chapel, one of
the Capital Region’s most perfect chamber-music venues. Guiding
this array—courting, booking, stage-managing, the works—is
Dr. Dan Berkenblit, whose taste in music and performers is
so good that you can take a chance on any concert he presents
and enjoy something musically compelling and brilliantly performed.
And Berkenblit has a knack for finding and presenting artists
on the cusp of international careers, artists who often return
when those careers suggest they don’t have to do so.
So it was fitting that Union College’s President, Stephen
C. Ainlay, opened Sunday’s concert by awarding Berkenblit
the college’s Founders Medal, recognizing the dedication and
effort required to put together a series that has made the
college one of the country’s most prestigious stops on the
The Emerson String Quartet is one of those groups Berkenblit
nabbed in its adolescence, and violinist Philip Setzer also
acknowledged a debt, noting that Berkenblit’s dedication to
them was “something we could count on,” so that during those
lean early times, “at least we had one concert in Schenectady.”
This was the ensemble’s 25th series appearance, and concluded
the current season with an all-Brahms program, this one dedicated
to that composer’s three string quartets.
Brahms was a fusspot who didn’t sign off on his pieces easily,
and suggested that he’d written and destroyed 20 quartets
before allowing his first to be published in 1873. It shows
the succinct precision that is characteristic of all of his
quartets, his melodic elements dovetailed with fascinating
As familiar as I am with these works from recordings—to which
the Emerson Quartet added an exceptional example last year—nothing
reveals that intricacy like the close listening a concert
affords. In fact, the experience made too clear how pathetic
my at-home listening habits have become. I can try to blame
it on society—music, after all, has taken a permanent place
as a secondary item, nothing more than a soundtrack to the
It’s still effective in that role, but music works its psychological
magic best when it’s in the forefront, when the listener chooses
to concentrate on little else. That’s the choice that slips
away from me too often. So it was a pleasure to be reminded
how effectively Brahms sculpted the quartets.
By concentrating on the opening work, Brahms’s second quartet—a
minor-key essay that nevertheless exudes the composer’s trademark
autumnal cheer—I was reminded how skillfully the composer
builds each movement. During several minutes of often polyphonic
intricacy, the flow of tension and release is so palpable
that you’re caught in a surge of excitement as you near the
coda—even when there’s nothing overtly exciting with the dynamics.
But the quartets themselves don’t need to be reviewed. They’re
proven. What’s more interesting is what made the Emerson String
Quartet’s performances so spectacular. They have achieved
a transparency that makes it easy to miss what goes into their
When the players begin to play, there’s an amazing confluence
of tone and dynamics. Nothing ragged happens—the resultant
chord swells as one note. The players breathe together, they
vibrate together, and when a passage ends they finish as one.
It’s an astonishing unanimity of purpose. With a piano in
their midst, string players can hide some blemishes; when
it’s strings only, you’re out there, naked. This group has
nothing to hide.
They also don’t impose phony passion on the works they play.
It’s built into the music, especially music by Brahms. There
are moments of rubato, of course, and other traditional stylistic
effects, but it’s still placed in the service of the piece.
Violinists Setzer and Eugene Drucker traditionally trade off
the number one chair, and Setzer played first in quartets
two and three. The violist is Lawrence Dutton, and cellist
is David Finckel. They finished to an ovation, and we can
only hope they’ll be back again next season.