Emerson Quartet on stage

The Vancouver Friends of Chamber Music Bows Down to Disaster with the Emerson Quartet

February 4, 2016

One of our longstanding board members, oncologist, and amateur cellist, Dr. Malcolm Hayes, enjoyed our Emerson String Quartet concert so much he wrote a personal review for us to share! Read his account, especially noted is when the Emerson String Quartet breaks their bow, and visit our concert recap for the reception photos PR, and social media accounts.

The January 31st 2016 Sunday afternoon concert featuring the world-renowned and nine time Grammy-winning Emerson String Quartet, presented by Friends of Chamber Music at the Vancouver Playhouse, attracted a good sized audience. Their outstanding new British ‘cellist, Paul Watkins, has settled in well after a couple of years and is proving a very good replacement for David Finckel.

Their rendering of the Haydn Emperor quartet, Opus 76 No. 3, captured the grace, poise, and majesty of the piece, and the audience bathed like spa-lovers in the wash of rich string sonorities. After the quiet and restrained control of the Haydn, the Bartók 4th quartet proved a jarring contrast, leaping from 18th century classicism to 20th century modernism. With its wild rhythms, dissonances, furious drive and white-hot energy the audience was gripped and swept into what remains the extreme edges of the chamber music canon, even though the work was composed in 1928.

Alas, the sheer mechanical tension of this performance proved too much for the bow of the first violinist Eugene Drucker during the final movement – it snapped near the tip with a loud crack and the piece fell, enveloping the violin and its player in a drooping cloud of horse hair, and necessarily bringing the entire quartet to an abrupt stop. The audience gasped, some giggled nervously while Mr. Drucker inspected his bow with disbelief and obvious consternation. An utter professional to the bone, after a short pause he calmly walked off the stage and appeared a few minutes later with a replacement bow which he used in playing with slightly less ferocity after restarting the final movement of the piece.

After the intermission, the final piece on the program was the “American” quartet, Opus 96, by Dvořák. This work is always an audience favourite, and the Emersons did it justice with some of the finest string playing I have ever heard in Vancouver. Mr. Drucker, again playing first violin (the Emerson are also famous for the violinists alternating the first and second parts), responded to playing using the new bow, producing a lovely graceful, yearning quality to the melodies that was matched by the sweet tone of the second violin. The viola and cello were in a class of their own, given opportunities by the composer of producing powerful and passionate solos and smooth mellow sonorities. This was a concert not to be forgotten.

Further information for those curious about violin bows might explain the alarm experienced by Mr. Drucker. Indeed, a broken violin bow can be likened to writing off one’s BMW X5 car on the way to the concert –only a BMW is replaceable! String bows are specialty artistic creations in their own right. When one owns violins of the quality of Eugene Drucker, one can assume that they are matched with an outstanding bow. Good string bows are hard to come by and very expensive. The highest quality are made by the French masters from the 1800s including François Xavier Tourte, François Peccatte Pierre Simon and Étienne Pajeot. Bows by these makers have sold for more than $250,000 and are all in excess of $50.000. Lesser quality bows by the English makers such as W.E. Hill and sons are in the £15,000 range. Most of the top bows are made of a threatened Brazilian hardwood called pernambuco but some modern bows are made of carbon fiber or fiberglass. I use ‘cello bows made of split cane by the English bow-maker Laurence Cocker of Derby, who adapted the bow making technique from that used to make cane trout-fishing rods ideally suited to playing the ‘cello part of the Schubert trout quintet! Each bow is unique in its weight, balance, and response so to a violinist, a broken bow is a considerable set-back. That said, the concert audience witnessed a setback handled with professional aplomb and dignity by a fine musician.