On Sunday, December 4, the Friends of Chamber Music presented the final Vancouver appearance by the Emerson String Quartet. Many long-time supporters returned to the Vancouver Playhouse for the first time since the start of the pandemic to hear the Emerson’s only Vancouver concert during the farewell tour in 2022 and 2023. There was plenty of emotion in the hall, and more than 400 audience members, when the four musicians strode onstage for their 32nd concert for us in Vancouver since the first in 1979.
The two violinists have been there from the start, going back to their student days in the early 1970s. Eugene Drucker played the 1st violin parts during the first half of the concert, with Philip Setzer switching to 1st violin after intermission. Violist Larry Dutton was part of the group by the time of that first Vancouver appearance. Welsh cellist Paul Watkins joined the ensemble only 9 years ago, and has fit in beautifully since then.
The group started with truly ‘classical’ music, Joseph Haydn’s String Quartet in G major, Opus 33, No 5 “How Do You Do”. Papa Haydn was the first to write what we think of as string quartets, and this is one of those that Mozart greatly admired and learned from. The music is by turns charming, vigorous, contemplative and melancholy, and hints at what was to come in the writing of a young Beethoven. It ends with a shift of tempo from allegretto to presto, giving it a final shot of energy.
Overall, the Emerson Quartet’s precision and balanced control matched with a lighter touch that shone in hearing this Haydn quartet.
While maintaining that precision and balance, the tonal palate was extraordinarily different in the music that followed. Dmitri Shostakovich’s String Quartet No 12 in D flat major, Opus 133, is a work the composer finished only seven years before he died. In it, he chooses a strange key setting as well as dabbling in 12-tone serialism. Intensity, passion, uncertainty, but ultimately optimistic feelings emanate from this music. We heard a powerful, well-structured, passionate and yet again gorgeously balanced interpretation that brought enthusiastic bravos from the audience at the end of the first half of the concert.
The second half brought a special reunion on stage. UBC music professor Eric Wilson, not our board member of the same name (although they know each other), was the Emerson Quartet cellist from 1976 to 1979, when he moved to Vancouver (before that first Vancouver concert for the quartet). He rejoined his colleagues as the second cellist to play Franz Schubert’s glorious String Quintet in C major. The group of five super-friends gave us a spirited and moving interpretation of the music Schubert finished writing only weeks before his death, one of the greatest works of chamber music ever composed. The performance had the ideal mix of sentiment, melody, architecture, and clean and balanced tone amongst the players. The Emerson Quartet and their long-time friend and colleague deserved the standing ovation and repeated curtain calls at the end of their final Vancouver concert. Philip Setzer broke in on the applause, thanking us all and he told us how much playing in Vancouver to receptive audiences has meant to this Grammy Award winning string quartet over the past 43 years of their career. He received cheers and applause in response from the whole audience who had not sat down. After the show, the musicians walked into the Vancouver Playhouse lobby to say thanks and goodbye to many local Friends of Chamber Music.
We’d like to thank everyone for coming out! Were you there? Leave your comments below, we’d love to hear them!