Emerson String Quartet’s Modern Age

The Emerson String Quartet kicked off Toronto Summer Music with a concert tonight.
I’m sure some people were there to hear Beethoven’s Op 95 quartet, many more to hear Schubert’s “Death & the Maiden” quartet, while comparatively few were there mainly for Britten’s 2nd Quartet, a work premiered in 1945 and the one piece on the program that’s genuinely modern.

I can’t help thinking about the programming questions faced by TSM artistic director Douglas McNabney. It’s the same question bedeviling anyone seeking to build an audience. Does a concert comprised of a masterwork by each of Beethoven & Schubert, with a 20th Century work tucked in between challenge the audience? While I wouldn’t normally think so –especially when the Festival theme is “The Modern Age”—I saw two people in close proximity to me sleeping through the Britten: so maybe this is more than enough modernity for some people. I shouldn’t over-estimate what audiences can handle.

Perhaps the advantage of such a combination of works is how it can satisfy a broad spectrum of listeners. While the Beethoven & Schubert are clearly crowd-pleasers that may have been the chief draw –and it should be noted that every seat was sold—I prefer to hear the Beethoven & Schubert as antecedents, key touchstones in the string quartet repertoire that are part of the context influencing Britten. Composed as a homage to Henry Purcell on the occasion of the 250th anniversary of the great English composer’s death, Britten’s 2nd Quartet is tonal, tuneful & clearly pointing as much to the past as to the future.

This is especially true of the third movement of Britten’s quartet, in its use of a baroque form, namely the chaconne, a witty set of variations.  Sandwiched between two works from more than a century before, the Emerson Quartet’s performance of the Britten piece pleased me more than either of the older works. Each of the players shone at times in the Britten, especially in the concluding chaconne.  It’s easy to see that Britten would find his truest voice in opera, considering the flamboyant animation of each part, as if portraying personages.   

Toronto Summer Music –a festival and an advanced institute for players and singers—continues until August 12th.

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