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November 14, 2006

Quartet adjusts at Mandel

It was a “make the most of it night” at Mandel Hall last Friday. The Emerson Quartet, widely hailed as the best chamber ensemble performing today, came to the University of Chicago a member short. Their viola player, Lawrence Dutton, recently underwent rotator cuff surgery and is now on medical leave from the quartet. What to do?

Well, Mozart wrote a nice trio for violin, viola, and cello—maybe one of you violinists can handle the viola? And hey David, isn’t your wife a pianist? I don’t know, let’s do some Brahms. A piano quartet, yeah, that’s it.

No cancellations, refunds, or exchanges. All programs and performers are subject to change without notice, and enjoy the show.

The upside is, of course, violinist Eugene Drucker really can play the viola pretty well (every now and again, a note would waver into tune after being stuck a tad flat, but otherwise he was solid). And Wu Han, the cellist’s wife, is not only a fantastic piano player, she’s a snappy dresser, too.

The Mozart Divertimento in E-flat in the first half was a bore. Six movements long—two fast, two slow, two minuets—and really nothing special. If you read the program notes or look on Amazon or just about any semi-authority on the music of Mozart, you’ll find that this piece is a masterwork of the Late Mozartian Style, that it solves the “difficult” scoring of violin, viola, and cello without resorting to double stops, and that it’s good music to boot. Maybe I’d be willing to give it another try, but if the Emerson boys couldn’t get me interested, I’m skeptical that the piece will ever be for me.

During intermission I rushed to the CD table, cookie stand, and the C-Shop. Then Wu Han came out, dressed in the reddest shawl you’ll ever see in public, and perfectly matching heels that must have been three inches or more. My first thought? She’s going to have to distend her ankle 200 degrees just to reach the pedals, let alone press them!

It’s not worth it to try to describe the Op. 25 Piano Quartet here. Suffice it to say that it is one of the most accessible pieces in chamber music literature, and one of the most luscious. I have a tendency of putting it on when I’m trying to impress a girl without being sappy or obvious, though the piece itself is probably both.

And they did a great job with it, too. I went to the concert hoping I would learn just why it is that the Emerson Quartet is considered the best, and I have to say, I’m still mystified. They start and end together better than any other group I’ve heard, and no one person seems to lead—either everyone’s leading or everyone’s following, but I’m not sure there’s a difference. Their interpretation of Brahms was pretty standard, but then again, their interpretation of Brahms has set the standard, so it’s hard to call it knee-jerk.

They were great, and it’s tough to say why. The audience liked it too—three curtain calls later, they played an encore. For the encore they played the slow movement of another Brahms piano quartet, the C-minor, which is simply gorgeous, if you ask me. It was a pretty ballsy encore to do—it’s 10 minutes long, and it’s slow. If any other group were playing, it probably would have come off as anti-climatic.

It’s too bad the full quartet wasn’t available on Friday, but even so, the concert was well worth the price of a ticket.

This was the second concert in Chicago Presents’ six-concert Chamber Music Series this year. The first was a stellar performance by the Florestan Trio and the next, scheduled for January, will be a recital by soprano Susan Graham.