UMS Scores Big with Emerson String Quartet

15909198-mmmain Susan Isaacs Nisbett
(Ann Arbor, Sept. 29, 2014)
On a day when the U-M team fumbled the ball yet again in the Big House, sending fans fleeing well before the fourth quarter, an evening’s entertainment that began with a quartet named “Serioso” seemed eerily appropriate.

But with the Emerson String Quartet on hand to play that particular Beethoven quartet, No. 11, Op. 95, the mood was anything but somber in Rackham Auditorium, where the University Musical Society was presenting the first concert of its 2014-15 Chamber Arts Series.

This “Serioso” quartet was part of a jubilant start to the season, striking all the right chords: great playing; chance to hear the Emerson’s newest member, cellist Paul Watkins; chance to encounter the seriously schizophrenic Shostakovich third quartet in a brilliant performance; chance to catch the world premiere of Lowell Liebermann’s haunting new Quartet No. 5, Op. 126.

The Liebermann was a UMS co-commission with its partners in Music Accord. It was also, it turned out, part of the first of many chamber music concerts to be endowed by U-M Professor Emerita Ilene Forsyth. Her gift to UMS, President Kenneth Fischer announced, would endow a Chamber Arts Series concert annually — in perpetuity.

It wasn’t till the second movement of the Beethoven that we really got to hear cellist Watkins, making his entrance with a beautifully shaped slow scale. But the blend was great in the first movement – with Watkins fitting in seamlessly with violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer and violist Lawrence Dutton. The ensemble’s sound was scrappy and blustery, a scribble of contained energy.

That energy was evident, too, in the scherzo, where the group’s precision and rhythmic acuity gave the movement an all-elbows-and-angles geometry.

If the Beethoven was all bristle and burr, a different sort of sound world prevailed in Liebermann’s quartet, which unfurls all in one movement. With Watkins leading the procession with a low grinding moan from his cello, the other three instruments slowly enter; they are ghostlike presences, with sound as white and coreless as shades. The first violin takes up a lamenting melody in which the others join; a sorrowing stasis, a sense of waiting, prevails. And then there’s declamation, and a singing duet for the two violins before all the players climb to central section that feels like a tower room up a dizzying chromatic staircase. When they descend again, it’s back into a world that mirrors the beginning and that fades back into sheer breath.

Liebermann was there to bound onstage and bow with the musicians, and he is likely to be doing a lot of that as the piece makes the rounds of Music Accord co-commissioners and beyond; the quartet seems likely to find a permanent place in the repertoire.

That’s a place, of course, that the Shostakovich quartets have had for some time; certainly, they are old friends for the Emerson, which has recorded the whole cycle.

Saturday, this particular old friend, the third quartet, got a reading from the new Emerson Four that was compelling and incisive. I particularly liked how the group played the quartet’s jump-shifts from cheer to sarcasm, light to darkness. They fully embraced each state, and yet they never neglected the cracks in the surface that foreshadow the change to come. The viola plays a big role in this quartet, and Dutton was exemplary, calling out a stern waltz in the second movement, and taming beasts in the sinister circus of the third, a frightening, brutal dance in which all seem to be fiddling for their life.

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