Emerson String Quartet at Ravinia Review - Legendary Musical Talent

I was very disappointed that the first concert of the Ravinia dream quartet double-header (the Takacs Quartet) was cancelled because of a medical emergency.  We were, however, thrilled to attend the second concert starring the Emerson String Quartet (ESQ).

The Emerson String Quartet (left to right: Eugene Drucker (violin), David Finckel (former member), Philip Setzer (violin), Lawrence Dutton (viola). *Newest member, Paul Watkins (cello) is not pictured. (Photo: Patrick Gipson)

 

Declared “America’s greatest quartet” by the New York Times, the ESQ has indeed earned that title. Founded in 1976, the group which was named after the famous American poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. ESQ has won several awards including nine Grammys, three Gramophones, the Avery Fisher award and the Musical America’s Ensemble of the Year. The ESQ is the quartet-in-residence at Stony Brook University in New York. In 2011 they were inducted into the Classical Music Hall of Fame.

 

The ESQ consists of four main members Eugene Drucker, Philip Setzer, (who alternate first-chair violinist position), Lawrence Dutton (violist) and Paul Watkins (cellist). Mr. Watkins took over for former member David Finckel this past May. Mr. Finckel had been an ESQ member since 1979.

The Emerson String Quartet (left to right: David Finckel (former member), Eugene Drucker (violin), Lawrence Dutton (viola), Philip Setzer (violin). *Newest member, Paul Watkins (cello) is not pictured. (Photo: Patrick Gipson)

 

My father and I attended their concert at Ravinia Festival, on Tuesday, August 13th, 2013 in the Martin Theater. Martin Theater is the only original structure besides the main gate that is still standing. This concert marked the ESQ’s 19th season at Ravinia, having debuted there in 1985.

The front entrance to the Martin Theater, (Photo: Jennifer Lunz)

A statue and plants align the sides of the Martin Theater, (Photo: Jennifer Lunz)

 

The evening’s music that originally consisted of works by Hayden, Beethoven and Britten was changed, and presented us with an Oreo cookie on Beethoven works with a Britten in the middle. The works by Beethoven were familiar: Quartet No. 7 in F Major, Op. 59, No. 1, (“Razumovsky No. 1”) and Quartet No. 8 in E Minor, Op. 59, No. 2 (“Razumovsky No. 2”). The cookie center was Britten’s Quartet No. 3, Op. 94.

 

Their concert was a delightful experience. ESQ began and ended with Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 7 in F Major, Op. 59, No. 1 and String Quartet No. 8 in E Minor, Op. 59, No. 2 (“Razumovsky”).Beethoven composed these quartets after he became deaf. This time period of his musical career brought about a major change in the way he viewed himself and in the resulting music. After he composed the three Op. 59 quartets, he finally made peace with his deafness and it helped to further inspire him musically.

 

The ESQ is of the generation that obviously prides itself by giving its performances standing up. The cumberbunded configuration on stage presented a centrally situated cello with the violins and viola clustered around. First and second violins changed roles during the performance.

 

Count Razumovsky, the ambassador to the Russian Tsar in Vienna, was one of Beethoven’s main patrons during his musical career. The two quartets that the ESQ performed at this concert were composed by Beethoven and inspired by and dedicated to Razumovsky.

 

Razumovsky No. 1 consisted of four movements. It is a violin-dominated piece which although familiar to us, was given a fresh and vigorous expresssion by the ESQ. The first movement, Allegro, was smooth and graceful, exerting passion and emotion. The second movement, Allegro vivace e sempre picked up the pace, reminding me of a fugue when the cello was playing with the rest of the instruments. The third movement, Adagio molto e mesto, was slow and somber, yet haunting and beautiful at the same time.  Apparently, this movement was quite emotional for Beethoven. The final movement, Thème russe: Allegro, was a perfect finale for the quartet as a whole. It was quiet and sweet with the violins serenading the audience. Beethoven composed this movement using inspiration from traditional folk tunes from Razumovsky’s Russia.

 

Razumovsky’s No. 2, is a cello-centered piece based upon more Russian folk music written by Ivan Prach. The first movement, Allegro, had a nice moderate tempo to it. The second movement, Molto adagio, was easily one of the more beautiful yet simple movements in the quartet. In the third movement, Allegretto, you could really hear the obvious influence of Russian folk music. The last movement, Finale, was a lively and fabulous movement and was a fitting ending to the concert as a whole.  

 

The filling to the Beethoven cookie this night was Benjamin Britten’s String Quartet No. 3, Op. 94. It was quite a string quartet and a huge musical contrast to Beethoven’s Razumovsky String Quartet.  Though Beethoven was ahead of his time, Britten was exceptionally contemporary. The influence of Bartok, whose quartets were sadly missed this summer with the Takacs cancellation, is heard throughout Britten’s quartet. This autumnal work, written during his declining health, echoes and compliments the somber themes running through both of the Razumovskys.

 

The ESQ seemed to share an unspoken musical connection.  Their powerful playing reflected passion and emotion, which I found very moving. At the concert’s conclusion, my father and I enthusiastically participated in several standing ovations.

 

For more information on the Ravinia Festival, you can visit  To learn more about the Emerson String Quartet and future tour dates, visit 

 

 

 

 

 

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