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MUSIC REVIEW

Emerson Quartet looks to the horizon

The string group presents a program of challenging pieces from yesterday and today, with eyes on tomorrow.

October 07, 2003|Josef Woodard | Special to The Times

By now a Promethean force in the chamber music world, the Emerson String Quartet is pretty hard to fault. Begun in 1976, the collaboration of violinists Philip Setzer and Eugene Drucker, violist Lawrence Dutton and cellist David Finckel blends polished ensemble playing, rigorous individual input and general musical intensity applied in nearly all the right places.

We expect bold, focused playing from the Emerson, and got it with the group's performance Sunday afternoon in Founders Hall at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

The extra something these four exemplary players brought to the date was a reminder of their mission not only to uphold string quartet standards but to expand the form's possibilities. Refreshingly devoid of the usual quartet fare, Sunday's program eased into gear on the theme of Mendelssohn's unfinished final quartet, Opus 81, in a performance that demonstrated the group's easy, lustrous way with 19th century structures. From there, it was on to the riveting String Quartet No. 4 of the great American composer Ned Rorem, who will celebrate his 80th birthday Oct. 23, and Shostakovich's Quartet No. 9, a rough beauty played accordingly.

Rorem's 1994 work, commissioned by the Emerson, draws on the inspiration of specific Picasso paintings for its 10 varied movements. Aptly, the melange of styles reflects both the composer's broad musical palette and the painter's restless artistic path.

The quartet opens with "Minotaur," written in a musical language that has a distinctly Stravinskian expressionistic edge, a la "Rite of Spring." Then the going immediately gets diverse, veering from the playful balancing-act-like suspense of "Acrobat on a Ball" to the lush melancholic colors of "Seated Harlequin" to the Cubist chordal shards of "Head of a Boy." A segment titled "Self-Portrait" places urgent cello lines, played masterfully by Finckel, against a pale, somber backdrop.

Whatever one's feelings about program music and the act of an artist cross-stitching inspiration from one medium onto another, Rorem's work has a formidable expressive power and sense of unhinged imagination. It's a fine addition to the string quartet repertoire and was persuasively presented by the commissioning musicians.

After intermission, they brought proper dignity and fire to Shostakovich's 1964 quartet, all Russian sternness and brute poetry packed into five movements without the punctuation of pauses. We might well speculate that its air of sad reflection, blended with moments of energetic release, stems from the composer's difficult life in Soviet politics, culture and the world where they intersected.

Setzer brought muscularity and sensitivity to his solo parts, and the quartet rose easily to the ensemble challenge. Not that we expected anything less.

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