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Unanimity of purpose: the Emerson String Quartet.

Gold Medal Performances

By B.A. Nilsson

Emerson String Quartet

Union 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 chamber-music circuit.

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 intricacy.

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 visual seethe.

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 artistry.

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.

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