Emerson String Quartet arrives in Ann Arbor with new player, new work

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Emerson String Quartet (Lisa Marie Mazzucco)

Susan Isaacs Nisbett
Ann Arbor, Mich. (Sept. 27, 2014)

The Emerson String Quartet is one of the world’s best-known quartets. But in Ann Arbor, their visits are so frequent – no fewer than 15 appearances under University Musical Society auspices since 1989, plus one coming up Saturday night at Rackham Auditorium – that folks around here have taken to calling them “The Emersons,” as if they were neighbors you’d invite over for a weeknight dinner.

Familiar they may be, but their Saturday appearance, which opens the UMS Chamber Arts Series, has not one, but two novelties: a new “family member,” cellist Paul Watkins; and a freshly minted quartet, from American composer Lowell Liebermann, that receives its world premiere here in Tree Town.

The Liebermann’s String Quartet No. 5, Op. 126, is a commission for the Emerson from Music Accord, an organization in which UMS is one of 10 members and co-commissioner. The group was founded to support the creation of new works and ensure their presentation.

The program also includes Beethoven’s Quartet No. 11 in f minor, Op. 95 (“Serioso”); and the Shostakovich Quartet No. 3 in F Major, Op. 73.

The Emerson’s chemistry with audiences has its roots in the chemistry among the players. The quartet’s roster – violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, who alternate in the first and second violin seats; violist Lawrence Dutton; and cellist David Finckel – stayed as rock steady for decades as the tempo of a good march.

Then, in the 2012, the Emerson announced what would be its first member change in 34 years: cellist Finckel, who joined the group in 1979, would leave at the end of the 2012-13 season, to devote more time to his personal artistic endeavors.

Changes of this nature can wrench apart quartets, but the Emersons were confident they’d found the right addition to their family in cellist Watkins. Audiences and critics have agreed, and Saturday is the Ann Arbor audience’s chance to weigh in.

Watkins, a cellist and conductor who hails from South Wales, has had a brilliant career — BBC Symphony Orchestra (principal cello at 20); concerto soloist and recitalist around the globe; collaborator with top musicians; member of the Nash Ensemble; winner of the Leeds Conducting Competition in 2002; conductor of leading orchestras in Britain and elsewhere; and now cellist of the Emerson.

He’s also just become director of the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival – so Detroit and Ann Arbor, which he visits for the first time Saturday, may get to see and hear a lot more of him than just Emerson appearances.

Watkins, who is 44, just moved to the U.S. about a year ago. The change, he said in a late-summer phone call, has been “massive, absolutely massive.”

“It’s still going on. It’s been just enough time to find my feet. Now it’s a question of planting them and growing in the States. My family has taken to it like ducks to water. My wife is originally from New York, but it’s the first time the kids, 6 and 11, have lived in the U.S.”

Watkins’ wife, Jennifer, is the daughter of the great American pianist Ruth Laredo, born and raised in Detroit; that connection was one of the reasons he accepted directorship of the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival. “Plus the city of Detroit itself is an iconic place for Brits,” he said. “Like any other young boy, I liked my cars, and I still like my cars. Coming from South Wales, a former industrial area of the UK, I’ve seen a similar progression of decline and the need to reinvent itself. Detroit is a great city in great crisis, but there are green shoots of recovery starting to come up.”

Finding his feet in the States has of course included finding his feet with the Emersons. Whether working on something that’s new to all, like the Liebermann, or on established repertoire, Watkins has taken on the “happy challenge” of becoming part of the family.

Rehearsals, he said, are a little bit like “grabbing onto a train that’s moving already. You go flying, and you just try and keep up and see what works, see who was injured and who not, and take it apart again. I don’t want to slow their progress in any way.

“That’s the amazing thing about the quartet, it keeps developing all the time. They’re so eager to do new things, to look at pieces that have been in the repertoire a long time in a new way. There is a certain sort of speed and urgency to the work that is great.”

Speed and urgency can be key when the score for a new work flies in the door. Commissions have a way of arriving later than they’re supposed to, even as concert dates approach.

But the Liebermann quartet had arrived before Labor Day, and Watkins had lots to say about it when we spoke.

“It’s a beautiful piece, all in one movement, which is rather reminds me a little bit of one of the Bartok quartets that’s all in one movement,” he said. “It actually has a rather slow burn. There’s a dark start, a kind of grinding thing in the cello, and snatches of music in the viola. He’s a very lyrical composer, and there’s a beautiful singing section. But there’s also some pretty dramatic stuff and also a fleet-footed section in the middle — very running music, a kind of lopsided fugue in 5/16, the trickiest part of the piece technically. It dissolves into thin air and then there’s a recapitulation of the rest of the movement. It’s like the Bartok, with a kind of arch form with a presto in the middle; it arches back from the original and ends as it began. It’s very well written for the string quartet.”

And, hopefully, well-matched to the Emerson.

Said UMS Director of Programming Michael Kondziolka of Music Accord’s commissions: “We try to marry works to soloists or groups to create a probability that the work will have a life beyond its premiere.”

UMS, he adds, views it as part of its mission to support composers in the creation of new repertoire.

With its colleagues in Music Accord – they are top presenters in the U.S. including the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the Library of Congress and Tanglewood Festival/Boston Symphony Orchestra — UMS has co-commissioned 67 new works since 1989. UMS has also commissioned works or revivals outside of the organization – for example, the reconstruction of “Einstein on the Beach” in 2012. This year, UMS has commissioned a work from composer John Harbison for violinist Jennifer Koh, partnering with the 92nd Street Y and Cal Performances. Koh will present it on her UMS “Bach and Beyond, Part III” program in February.

Through Music Accord, composers affiliated with the University of Michigan, like William Bolcom, Michael Daugherty and Bright Sheng, have received commissions. That’s a mark not just of UMS’s participation in Music Accord (there’s a rotating decision-making board), but of the stature of these U-M composers.

With 10 presenters in Music Accord, only one gets to give the world premiere of a work the group commissions. And while Music Accord members are not bound to present the work commissioned, most try to include it on their series, Kondziolka said.

“Every so often it’s nice to have the world premiere; to the degree people care about such things, it’s nice for the excitement,” he said. “But at the end of the day, sometimes it’s better for the artist or ensemble to have time to live with the piece, to decide what they have to say.

“This time, for the first of concert of the chamber music series, it’s a great way to start – and to trumpet our role as a commissioner, especially with a quartet that’s been here quite a bit.”

The Emerson String Quartet

    • Who: The Emerson String Quartet
    • What: Quartets by Beethoven, Liebermann and Shostakovich.
    • Where: Rackham Auditorium, 915 E. Washington St.
    • When: Saturday, Sept. 27, 8 p.m.
    • How much: $26-$52, UMS Michigan League Ticket Office, (734) 764-2538, and online at ums.org.

See the original article at Mlive.com

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