The vibe was thick with bittersweet anticipation amidst the crowd that filed into Kaul Auditorium to hear the Emerson Quartet for its final two appearances in Portland, courtesy of Chamber Music Northwest. The concertgoers filled the hall to the brim on Thursday July 6 and Saturday July 8 for the ensemble – violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violist Lawrence Dutton, and cellist Paul Watkins – who is calling it quits after a storied career with nine Grammys, 52 recordings, and countless accolades.
In her introductory remarks for the Thursday night concert, CMNW Co-artistic Director Gloria Chien said that everyone can remember the first time they heard the Emersons. That statement resonated with me–my first was in the ‘90s, at a CMNW concert at the Catlin Gable School. They played a Shostakovich quartet that was so electrifying that it felt like taking off on a jet plane. Their final concerts at Kaul Auditorium marked their 13th summer at Chamber Music Northwest.
Rather than relax with a program consisting of favorite hits, the Emerson Quartet opened Thursday’s program with a work that they newly commissioned for their final tour. Drink the Wild Ayre by Princeton-based composer Sarah Kirkland Snider drew inspiration from a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote: “Live in the sunshine, swim in the sea, Drink the wild air’s salubrity.” Well, the Emersons plunged headfirst into the complex one-movement piece with gusto. The constant weaving of harmonic lines seemed to speed up and slow down in a mercurial fashion with unexpected pauses and sudden sforzandos that pierced the air. Some brief exchanges between the musicians bordered on conversations, but mostly the braided style of the piece vanished at the end, suggesting a flock of birds flying into the distance.
The Emersons gave Béla Bartók’s String Quartet No. 2 an incisive performance that had plenty of nuance. The first movement came across as vigorous and fairly loud – not “A quiet life” as Kodály described it – although it had moments of calm, especially from the cello. The second movement erupted with slashing phrases and accented interjections. After nudging each other ahead, the musicians executed terrific tempo changes and gripping dynamic contrasts before closing with a crazed, wild frenzy. The final movement shifted the mood, creating a quiet and finely tuned melancholy that was a bit haunting.
After intermission, clarinetist and CMNW Artistic Director Emeritus David Shifrin joined the Emerson Quartet in Brahms’ lovely Clarinet Quintet, which they recorded for Deutsche Grammophon in 1997. The nudging sound of Watkins’ cello, the liquid-smooth tone of Shifrin’s clarinet, the wistful longing from Setzer’s violin combined to make the music open like a flower. The uptempo transition in the third movement and the decay that followed later were delicious. The refreshing exchange of variations in the fourth movement led to a satisfying but quiet conclusion that gave the piece an elegiac quality.
In response to the sustained standing ovation, the Emersons and Shifrin responded with the second movement from Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet as an encore. Their luxurious and sublime playing added a little balm to the goodbye.
For its concert on Saturday evening, the Emerson Quartet upped the level of intensity to deliver a scintillating performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14. The ensemble took listeners on a rewarding journey, conquering the quartet’s daunting landscape with its myriad key changes. The seven-movement juggernaut (played without pauses) expressed a gamut of emotions: starting with solemn loneliness; moving to a playful, lighter section; vaulting into a march; slipping into a series of ascending passages; and a sudden shift into pizzicato-land, cutting to a throbbing section sprinkled with questioning phrases (cello); then dramatic dynamic shifts, humor, and a rollicking finale. There were so many permutations – it seemed that Beethoven threw the kitchen sink at the musicians – as if daring them to play the piece. Well, the Emersons made it happen and then some.
Saving the best for last, Chien and the Emerson Quartet fashioned a flat-out glorious rendition of Robert Schumann’s Piano Quintet. A lot of the success was due to Chien’s super-attentive listening skills. It’s as if she has a pair of antennas in the back of her head. Her playing perfectly meshed with the Emerson Quartet for each and every measure. Together, they shaped the music in such a way that the result was mesmerizing, and it all built up to the dancing, rhapsodic, and effusive finale that had people jumping out of their seats with ecstatic applause and cheering. That led to an encore, the “Scherzo furiant” from Dvořák’s Piano Quintet, which alternated delightfully between the fun and fast theme and the slower, nostalgic theme – a fitting end.
Although the Emerson Quartet will be no more after their swansong concert on October 21-22 at Alice Tully Hall in New York City, Portland will still benefit, thanks again to CMNW. That’s because cellist Paul Watkins is joining CMNW’s own Soovin Kim and Gloria Chien to form the brand-new Chien-Kim-Watkins Trio, and they will play all of Beethoven’s Piano Trios in a mini-festival on March 9, 14, and 16. How cool is that?