Sunday, June 24, 2007

Saariaho's Terra Memoria Premiered

By Bernard Holland
From the New York Times - June 19, 2007

The Emerson String Quartet ended its long and busy residency at Carnegie Hall on Sunday night fittingly, with Beethoven’s farewell to the medium but also with a new piece by Kaija Saariaho. In the last three weeks the Emerson has coached and presented young ensembles and itself gone through the Beethoven repertory onstage, adding other composers to its programs here and there.
I can’t resist repeating that a 2,800-seat space is not the right place to hear four string players play chamber music, but you can’t argue with the economics. Carnegie’s Stern Auditorium was not as full as it seemed to be on my last trip to this series two weeks ago, but there were certainly two or three times more ticket buyers than the building’s two smaller (and more appropriate) Weill and Zankel Halls could have held.
For his last quartet (Op. 135) Beethoven revisits his “happy” key of F. Just as with the Sixth and Eighth Symphonies, there is the joy-in-living theme together with a don’t-waste-my-time methodology. We experience sunlight, in other words, but with it an abruptness that is happy to jump suddenly into the listener’s consciousness and do away with elaborate throat clearings and polite introductions.
As in most of Beethoven’s last pieces, exquisite melodiousness, colored by his fascination with antique scales, alternates with a roughness approaching brutality. We shall never figure out whether a deaf musician had simply lost contact with the sound of live performances and the technical difficulties attached, or whether the man who had earlier created such luxurious color schemes as the “Pastoral” Symphony just wanted his audience to squirm.
Like the late C sharp minor Quartet that came after intermission, Beethoven’s sweeping sense of organization is exchanged for chains of events. The Emerson played the lyrical elements with great beauty, although the Presto of the C sharp minor was rushed and roughed up to the point of unintelligibility.
No rough sounds for Ms. Saariaho’s “Terra Memoria,” commissioned by Carnegie Hall and having its first performance here. Ms. Saariaho’s elegant music begins and ends in whispery near-silence. Her care for the sound properties of instruments is a double gift to listeners. The overlapping conversations between voices are received as counterpoint, and yet the assembled sounds create a single cloudlike sonority. Most of the piece sings in a pervasive tenor-to-treble range reminiscent of Ravel or Fauré. The more Ms. Saariaho engages the past, the more original her music becomes.

Emerson concludes string quartet cycle with panache

By Ben Finane
From the Star-Ledger - June 18, 2007

Beethoven's joyous Quartet in F Major (Op. 135) was played by the Emerson String Quartet on June 17 with a grand American sweep, impressive in its emotional honesty, inspired in its pacing. This performance at Carnegie Hall opened the last of the Emerson String Quartet's (violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violist Lawrence Dutton and cellist David Finckel) dozen concerts there, featuring the Beethoven String Quartets. The month-long series looked to present the Beethoven cycle in context, and included works by Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Bartok, Shostakovich and other masters of the medium.

As for Beethoven, a ruddy Allegretto delighted for its playfulness, while a vigorous Vivace, executed with brisk attack, approached insanity in the way the players dove into the runs, jettisoning technique overboard to achieve maximum ramming speed. This was contrasted with a gentle Lento, where the Emerson achieved a quiet place in the chorale section, playing with such extreme pianissimo that the audience seemed to hold its breath. The work was given a convincing conclusion, earning Beethoven's written direction in the score "Es muss sein!" (It must be!).

The Emerson's final concert of the series, delivered to a packed hall, featured a world premiere by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, bookended by two late Beethoven quartets. This work, "Terra Memoria," is only the second string quartet by the 54-year-old Saariaho. The premiere of "Terra Memoria" began softly, with low and high strings establishing the peaks and pits of the landscape that was to unfold. Languid motives gradually developed and expanded, sliding up and down the register, advancing and receding within the aural spectrum. The schema of the piece, which was simply to explore a sliding wash of color, made for music that was vociferous and angst-ridden, but also cold, clinical and removed. Dedicated by the composer "for those departed," the work clearly has an element of lament and nostalgia, but there is no catharsis here. The only brightness in the premiere arrived in the form of Saariaho's vivid pink scarf, which came into view when the composer emerged from the audience and made her way to the stage to exchange bisou bisou (kisses in French, Saariaho lives in Paris now) with the members of the Emerson -- 12 in all for four bewildered players.

After intermission, disaster struck. The mighty Quartet in C-sharp minor (Op. 131), which offers little space to catch one's breath (or to tune), slipped away from the Emerson early on and seemed only to increase its lead as the players stumbled after it in an attempt to catch it before the finish line. The quartet dragged, and there were great problems with tuning, which grew more and more severe as Op. 131 wore on. Worse, the performance was scarred by insensitive playing. The Carnegie Hall audience did not seem to mind, as concertgoers leapt to their feet with applause and shouts at the work's conclusion, perhaps acknowledging the feat of completing the Beethoven cycle (and more) over a dozen concerts as much as that night's performance. As an encore, the Emerson played the final Allegro from Beethoven's String Quartet in B-flat Major (Op. 130). "The last piece he ever wrote," said Drucker from the stage. The tender reading was certainly a fitting denouement to the concert series.

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