The Emerson String Quartet, an anchor of chamber music at Meany at the University of Washington (27 concerts in 33 years), played a farewell concert on December 1. Full house. Standing ovation. As usual.
The quartet was formed in 1976 in New York and eventually established a residence in Stony Brook University. Meany has long been one of their favored venues, and many years they starred in the chamber music programs at Meany (sometimes even playing two separate concerts in a season).
It has held together remarkably well, losing only a founding cellist (David Finckel), replaced in 2013 by Paul Watkins. To me, the Emerson exemplified the American/Juilliard/Manhattan style of playing classical music: distinctive voices (not a creamy European blend), assertive interpretations, speedy tempos, edgy, analytical, “inward” playing. Some quartets are really set up to accompany the lead violinist, but with the Emerson, I always have the uncanny sense of hearing all four voices simultaneously.
The recent Meany concert concluded with Schubert’s final string quartet (1826), elegantly pulled back in the melody lines so one could savor the inner voices. The players were intense and riveting in the multi-voiced explorative development sections, never “milked.”
The quartet exhibited a few intonation problems, perhaps a result of the age of the players, maybe interpretive. They are still amazingly balanced and respectful of other voices, quietly exquisite, elegant yet potent. They will be missed, particularly in Seattle where they actively coached young players, and violinist Eugene Drucker, a poet himself, would pay visits to local writers. It made me wonder, again, why Seattle and the UW do not host an important string quartet.