Emerson Quartet yield to Galway

Tue, Sep 4, 2012, 01:00

The award-winning Emerson String Quartet finally made an appearance in Ireland at the weekend, but yielded top billing to the world’s most celebrated flautist, James Galway

IT’S BEEN A LONG WAIT. But the Emerson String Quartet, founded at the Juilliard School, in New York, as long ago as 1976, and quartet-in-residence at Washington’s Smithsonian Institution for more than three decades, has finally made an appearance in Ireland, opening the National Concert Hall’s new International Concert Series on Sunday in partnership with the flautist James Galway.

If you want to count success in terms of awards, the Emerson have an enviable record. Their 30-plus recordings have won nine Grammys and three Gramophone awards. They’re renowned for their smooth beauty of tone, are among the limited number of quartets who don’t have a leader – the two violinists, Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, alternate between first- and second-violin parts – and for the past 10 years the group have performed standing, with the cellist David Finckel on a riser. This last aspect is obviously a catching fashion. Poland’s Apollon Musagète Quartet, heard at West Cork Chamber Music Festival this summer, also stand rather than sit.

The Emerson’s style is not to everyone’s taste, as I’ve discovered during interviews with younger quartets. The sheer polish of the playing and the consistency of the vibrato seem to have become features that many players of the next generation have found themselves reacting against. The sonic ideal for the young string quartets of the 21st century, often influenced by developments in period-instrument performances, is well removed from the sweeter manner that has been the Emerson’s hallmark. Simply put, the smoothness can come to be seen as uneventful.

Sunday’s concert was an unusual one for a leading string quartet, yielding top billing to the world’s most celebrated flautist and presenting a programme with only a single full quartet (Dvorak’s American), a string-quartet movement that’s best known as one of the world’s most famous orchestral pieces (Barber’s Adagio), a flute solo (Debussy’s Syrinx), two of Mozart’s flute quartets, and A Night Piece for flute and string quartet by the little-known American composer Arthur Foote (1853-1937).

The string-quartet highlight of the evening was the Barber, sounding lighter and more fluid with just four instruments, less emotionally wrought, and much more a private statement.

The success of the collaborations was basically decided by the quality of the music, with Mozart’s Flute Quartet in D, K285, having a joie de vivre in the faster movements and a gentle poignancy in the slow movement that Albert Einstein once described as “perhaps the most beautiful accompanied solo ever written for the flute”. Mozart didn’t like the flute (he described it as “an instrument which I cannot bear”), to the point where he had difficulty completing his commission for four flute quartets.

The Emerson and Galway were well matched in their style of delivery, the flautist’s playing frequently offering moments of the kind of piercing sweetness that can bring tears to the eyes. Galway dedicated his performance of Syrinx to the memory of the late Doris Keogh, who, he joked, “taught everybody in Ireland, except me”.

Doris, who died last month, was a teacher who inspired exceptional loyalty and dedication from her students. I had the privilege of performing with her once, in the Irish premiere of Stockhausen’s Tierkreis (Zodiac) at a lunchtime concert at St Ann’s Church on Dawson Street in Dublin, with Gerald Barry on the organ. It was a memorable occasion for all the wrong reasons, and one that certainly tested Doris’s fortitude and perseverance.

The concert took place on a freezing January day during an ESB strike, so the church was unheated. The electricity was due to have come on in time to provide power for the organ blower, but it was late, so late, in fact, that Charles Acton, the Irish Times critic at the time, ran out of patience and left before three shivering players and a handful of diehard shivering music lovers somehow got through the 12 signs of the Zodiac together. Stockhausen originally wrote his Zodiac melodies for music boxes, and the one easy moment I had on that day was turning on the tinkling sound of the single music box featured in our performance.

The kind of experimental performance represented at that St Ann’s concert is now much more likely to take place in the National Concert Hall’s Kevin Barry Room, a former UCD lecture room that, in the spirit of experimental spaces, often has traffic and other sounds leaking in from outside – and, at the Irish Composers’ Collective’s Eyes and Ears concert on Friday, a significant leakage of light as well.

The programme concentrated on audiovisual works (mostly electronic), with the video back-projected on to a screen from another former lecture theatre. Unfortunately, an uncurtained window in that second theatre allowed street lighting to project the image of a multipaned window with a plant on to part of the screen. It was faint but clear, and was visible whenever the projection fell below a certain brightness.

It shouldn’t be hard to remedy, but it was certainly thought-provoking, while one worked out its relevance or irrelevance, in the evening’s first piece, Lightbulb, with music by Sebastian Adams and visuals by Mary Leonard.

Most of the evening’s works were one-person affairs, with composers being responsible for both music and visuals. It’s surely as tall an order to expect a composer to have the necessary mastery of a visual medium as it would be to expect a visual artist to have the necessary mastery of music to create a work that can range as freely for the eye as for the ear. Adams and Leonard certainly provided the evening’s most concentrated and balanced exploration of a straightforward idea. It was all in the title.

The Contemporary Music Centre (CMC) offered an August series concentrating on what you might call Cinderella recitals: separate programmes for solo harp, solo accordion, unaccompanied voice and solo viola. There’s actually no shortage of repertoire in these areas, but it’s undoubtedly true that there isn’t the quality or depth that makes it possible to put together a single programme that includes much that most music lovers would be familiar with. And yet performers persist, and so do composers.

The CMC being the CMC, the repertoire was all Irish. I caught the last of the concerts, at the CMC’s offices on Fishamble Street in Dublin, on Thursday. The highlight of viola-player Lisa Dowdall’s programme was Linda Buckley’s Do You Remember the Planets?, where viola and electronics consistently became more than the sum of the parts.