Friends of Chamber Music

Emerson String Quarter


Philip Setzer, violin

Eugene Drucker, violin

Lawrence Dutton, viola

David Finckel, cello

Friday April 24, 1998, 8 pm

The Chan Centre, UBC


Reviewer: Roxanne Davies

Just as this was the first Friends of Chamber Music concert held at the Chan Centre, it was also my first time at the beautiful concert hall located at the University of British Columbia. The architecturally superb building, a gift from the philanthropic Chan family, boasts world-class acoustical features. Staring at the accoustical tiles suspended over the stage, I decided that the ceiling appeared to be straight out of a Star Wars movie scene.

I found myself seated next to a dapper young gentleman with a witty sense of humour. "It nevers fails to amaze me how one gets such a glorious sound from something made from the same wood as a cigar box," he said during the intermission.

Cigar box material, indeed. His humorous observation was the only light moment for me in what was an intense and actually emotionally draining exprience. The wonder and beauty of the sounds coming from centre stage at the Chan underlined the fact that the Emerson String Quartet is one of the premiere musical ensembles in the world at this time. Three- time Grammy Award winners, they are highly regarded for not only their artistry and dynamic style of performance, but also for technical excellence.

Luckily, the audience was as well disciplined as the musicians, and was able to sit totally still and choke back any coughs, or unnecessary throat clearing. The accoustics in the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts are so pure and clear, the hall resembles a sound stage more than a mere concert hall. Rustling programs sound like a forest fire, a cough takes on the volume of a bull moose call.

I sat there with my program glued to my lap, not daring to pick it up lest I break the spell created by the four extremely talented musicians. Their masterful interpretation of the works of two disparate yet similar composers was apparent. Although more than a century divided these two titans of musical composition, both composers shared the same revolutionary tendencies.

Whereas Beethoven fought against the formal conventions of his time, Shostakovitch fought against Stalinist repression.   It was lovely to hear Beethoven's String Quartet in F major, Op.135. It is the last of Beethoven's complete string quartet and actually is lighter, more peaceful and calmer than some of his earlier pieces. Some listeners think it represents a return to middle class taste.

Be that as it may, the ensemble treated the four part composition with an inspired grace that only develops from intense attention to the nuances and details of the piece. And that is ultimately the beauty of chamber music. It can be as intimate as a conversation, but expressive and explosive enough to fill an auditorium.

Shostakovich holds a special place in the heart of all the residents of Leningrad, now St Petersburg. He did not desert the city during its seige and wrote the famous Symphony No. 7. and dedicated it to Leningrad in its darkest hour. His music is piped in through the trees at the city's main cemetary which holds the bones of the million inhabitants who perished during the second world war. His compostions are bold and expressive (for this he was condemned by Stalin), but the Quartet No 6 in G major is also a happy work with an opening child-like theme that only hints at returning again throughout the body of the piece. . The music is lyrical and relaxed, and the Emerson Quartet wove a tapestry of musical styles throughout -- dance-like melodies, lyrical tunes, canons, drones... The last movement is a rondo weaving together elements of the previous movements, a technique Shostakovitch often used in his quartets.

After intermission, during which time I strolled through the beautiful gardens adjacent to the centre, we were treated to Beethoven's Quartet in B-flat major. It was a fairly long movement, with six movements ranging in length from a minute to almost 20 minutes. When Beethoven was asked what was the main motive or reason behind his music, he replied that by hearing music, it was the most direct way the listener could make his or her way directly into the heart and mind of the composer.

The Beeethoven Quartets chosen for this evening were by turn light, humourous, whimsical and filled with passion, pain and anguish. An intense listening experience, but very satisfying nonetheless.

Kudos to the Friends of Chamber Music Society which for the past fifty years has quietly gone about the business of jetting in the cream of international chamber music for one-night stands in Vancouver. No doubt they will engage the superb Chan Centre again for future musicians. A word of caution to music lovers: If you have a cold, please stay home. You don't want to shatter the crystal-like atmosphere of this unique concert hall.

Copyright 1998 Roxanne Davies