The Well-Tempered Ear

Madison classical music notes: The Ear’s post-concert encounter with the Emerson String Quartet revealed some local and humanizing trivia

January 29, 2010
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By Jacob Stockinger

On Tuesday, I posted a favorable review of the Emerson String Quartet’s first-rate performances of early Ives, middle Dvorak and late Beethoven at the Wisconsin Union Theater last Friday night.

After the concert, I attended a reception for the quartet.

Between the concert and reception, there are some other things to pass on – some information that is of local interest and that humanizes the profession of touring, world-class musicians.

As members of the enthusiastic audience of almost 900 know, the quartet dedicated its one encore – a beautiful Mozart transcription of Bach’s four-part fugue in E-flat major from “The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II” – to retired UW genetics professor Jim Crow on the occasion of his recent 94th birthday. (See the photos below, taken at the reception by co-host and UW School of Music director John William Schaffer, of the quartet with professor emeritus Crow in the center.)

Now you might think that they dedicated the encore because Crow is a devoted viola player who once even sat in for the slow movement of the Bruckner quartet with the UW’s Pro Arte Quartet.

Or because he is a passionate champion of chamber music who also supports the arts with generous donations. (He sponsors the Madison Symphony Orchestra Bolz Young Artists Competition that was recently broadcast on Wisconsin Public Radio and Television, for example.)

And that may be. Crow certainly such recognition for those actions.

But the immediate occasion was apparently that Crow also worked with and mentored a relative of a quartet member, another scientist who taught in the UW System. And throughout the years, with many appearances in Madison at the Wisconsin Union Theater, the Emerson has stayed in touch with Crow.

What else did I find out, while I munched on late night cheese and desserts?

Here’s what:

The Emerson is very, very busy and does not rest on its laurels form three decades together. In addition to making recordings and pursuing solo careers and teaching and being resident artists at Stony Brook University on Long Island, New York – and co-directing the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in cellist David Finckel’s case – the quartet members usually play about 90 concerts a year. The Emerson will tour Europe this spring.

They have been playing standing up – except, of course, for the cellist David Finckel – for a half-dozen years because it is a healthier posture to avoid back problems and to play more expressively. One member even does 15 minutes of Pilates and yoga every day to avoid or lessen back problems. It is also the posture violinists and violists used in the Baroque era and before.

Recording that are planned include: a CD set of Dvorak’s late or mature string quartets, his Viola Quintet and the miniature “Cypresses” – to be released this spring. Then the last Mozart quartets are up – the Emerson has already recorded the six “Haydn” quartets by Mozart; then perhaps a second volume of the Haydn quartets, from Op. 64 through Op. 76.

“But there is always more projects that we want to record than we have time to do,” said one member.

What about a mixed recital program format? Apparently record labels don’t like to mix more than two composers on a CD because it makes it hard to file in stores. But as digital downloads take over, the record companies are more open to different tactics. So a program of quartets by different composers may indeed be in the offing.

I say great because I would love to hear “The Emerson Quartet: 2010” and “The Emerson Concerts: 2011” and so on. Put on one CD and you can recreate something of a live recital program or concert.

The quartet likes to play in Madison because of the audience and because of the distinguished history of the Wisconsin Union Theater.

The quartet especially liked the program selected by the Wisconsin Union Theater, and were repeating it in Minnesota and Michigan within three days.

Cellist David Finckel ( above left, f0llowed by violist Lawrence Dutton, UW genetics professor James Crow, second violinist Philip Setzer and first violinist Eugene Drucker) complimented the Schaffers on their handsome and sleek remodeled kitchen because he too is an avid amateur remodeler who doesn’t worry about injuring his hands and just goes ahead and does the carpentry work himself.

And you thought the lives of such acclaimed musicians were all about music!

So, will the Emerson win a Grammy this weekend for its outdstanding album of Janacek and Martinu?

Tune in to the TV broadcast of the Grammys on CBS Sunday night at 7 p.m. or look here.

Posted in Classical music

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