Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

September 12, 2023

REVIEW: South Mountain Concerts, "Emerson String Quartet"

South Mountain Concerts, Pittsfield, MA 
September 10, 2023 
by Michael J. Moran 

Despite the threat of severe thunderstorms (which stayed away), a sold-out house greeted this beloved ensemble – violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violist Lawrence Dutton, and cellist Paul Watkins - at their 35th and final appearance here before they retire next month after a distinguished 47-year career. All are founding members except Watkins, who succeeded founding cellist David Finckel in 2013. 

The program opened with Mozart’s 10th quartet, in D minor, K. 421. The Emersons’ gentle take on this work of early maturity, dating from 1783, featured a genial “Allegro moderato,” a warm “Andante,” an urgent “Menuetto,” a playful “Allegretto,” and a captivating “Allegro ma non troppo-Piu allegro” finale, with four sharply characterized variations on a dancelike theme. 

Emotions were more heated in Mendelssohn’s 2nd quartet, in A minor, Op. 13. Written in 1827, it reflects the influence of Beethoven’s recent late quartets on the 18-year-old composer. The Emersons offered a turbulent “Adagio-Allegro vivace,” an intense “Adagio non lento,” a fleet “Intermezzo: Allegretto con moto-Allegro di molto,” with a light-as-a-feather mid-section, and a dramatic “Presto” finale, with a quietly moving “Adagio non lento” close. 

Next came the last of many commissions by the Emersons of new pieces from contemporary composers, Sarah Kirkland Snider’s 2023 quartet “Drink the Wild Ayre.” The title mixes a quote by their namesake, philosopher/poet Ralph Waldo Emerson (“Drink the wild air’s salubrity”) with the lyrical nature of a musical “ayre.” The quartet’s committed performance of the Princeton, NJ native’s colorful one-movement work exuded all the carefree, outdoorsy exuberance she could have wanted. 

A masterful account of Ravel’s popular 1903 quartet in F Major closed the program, including a mellow “Allegro moderato-tres doux,” an alternately high-spirited and mysterious “Assez vif-tres rhythme,” a radiant “Tres lent,” and a buoyant closing “Vif et agite.” The Emersons’ technical precision and interpretive depth remained as flawless as ever all afternoon.   

Introducing their heartfelt encore – a string quartet transcription of Bach’s last chorale – Drucker expressed the group’s hope that it would “transport us to a special place.” In return, the enthusiastic audience seemed to echo Snider’s wish: “Here’s to the singular magic of these artistic giants, and the new adventures that await them.” 

This century-old Sunday afternoon concert series of chamber music performed by world-class musicians continues through October 15, with upcoming performances by the Juilliard and Dover String Quartets.