On Saturday, Stanford Live welcomed the Emerson String Quartet to Bing for what would be the quartet’s final performance at Stanford. The four members of the ensemble — Paul Watkins (cello), Lawrence Dutton (viola), Philip Setzer (violin) and Eugene Drucker (violin) — visited Stanford as one of their stops on their Farewell Season tour. Bing was truly a packed house that night, with Bay Area fans of all ages hoping to send off and celebrate the quartet’s career as one of the world’s premiere chamber ensembles for over 40 years.
The nine-time Grammy-winning quartet, formed in 1976 and based in New York City, has an extensive history at Stanford, with archives dating some of their first performances at the University to 1981. On stage this weekend, the members fondly joked how the grandiosity of Bing Concert Hall is “much different than Dink[elspiel],” which hosted the quartet’s performances until Bing’s construction.
Drucker started off the night by dedicating the quartet’s final performance at Stanford to the late Geoff Nuttall, the first violinist from Stanford’s renowned ensemble-in-residence, the St. Lawrence String Quartet. Nuttall passed away this October due to cancer, which Drucker described to the audience as a “tremendous loss to the music community.” Drucker gave a heartfelt description of Nuttall’s “passion and lovely personality,” which made him “lovely to work with as a teacher, colleague [and] mentor,” as well as an inspiration to others.
The quartet began its final performance at Bing with Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 1 in E-flat, Op. 12 (1829). The opening chords of the first movement immediately put me at ease with the quartet’s warm, rich signature sound. Resounding vibrato from Drucker, who performed the first violin part, echoed across the hall.
In the second movement, “Canzonetta: Allegretto,” the quartet showcased bouncy and light spiccato, nicely complemented with resonating pizzicatos from Watkins. The most climactic unison moments, where all four members of the quartet performed the same mysterious melody together, gave me goosebumps: it truly sounded as if I was listening to a single instrument. It spoke volumes for the four decades the quartet has spent crafting an acute awareness of each other’s skill.
After the first piece of the night, Drucker and Setzer switched between first and second violin parts.
As Paul Phillips, Gretchen B. Kimball Director of Orchestral Studies, remarked to me during the intermission, the Emerson String Quartet was the ensemble that pioneered this practice. The lack of designated roles between the violins has given the ensemble a very “distinctive profile” over the years, according to Phillips.
I find the switch telling of the trust between the members of this quartet. By erasing the assumed hierarchy between the two violinists with this switch, Drucker and Setzer have allowed the other to shine in different intervals of the repertoire they perform on each concert, which allows them to play off of each other’s strengths. This flexibility also allows the listener to focus less on the individual players and more on the bare bones of the music being performed.
Following Mendelssohn on the program was Brahms’ acclaimed String Quartet No. 3 in B-flat, Op. 67 (1875). Across the first and second movements, “Vivace” and “Andante,” the quartet showcased impeccable technique, especially with strong vibrato that was rounded out and colorful across the board.
The members showcased precise spiccato, and the two violinists played lightning-speed trills and slurs, as well as rapid string crossings, with sharp accuracy. In my direct line of sight was Watkins, who anchored the emotional vitality of those movements with engaged facial expressions to accent each individual note.
Between the third and fourth movements, Setzer (on first violin) and Dutton engaged in a tantalizing duet. Here, it was Dutton who had his moment to showcase his blooming, full sound, and it was Setzer who accompanied him. What struck me about Dutton’s sound was how rounded out and clean it was: there was not a single break in intonation or rough spot around the edges.
Following resounding applause from the audience and a brief intermission, the quartet returned with the final programmed piece of the night, Dvorak’s Quartet No. 14 in A-flat, Op. 105, B. 193 (1895). Whereas in the other pieces in the repertoire it was clear that the quartet was hoping to showcase its impeccability, it was with the selection of this piece that it desired to showcase its capacity to play with unrestrained emotion.
For me, the most memorable moment of the piece was the sweet opening by Watkins, with its notes melting together like honey. A mesmerizing exchange between the two violins in the first movement, accompanied with energetic plucking from the cello, allowed for a climactic build-up to the end of the movement.
Throughout the rest of the piece, the four musicians colored their repertoire with a broad palette of musical expression, showcasing tender hairpin swells in dynamic, teasing spiccato accompanied by cheeky foot tapping and energetic and grand accelerandos.
At the end of the final piece of the night’s program, the quartet was met with a reverberant standing ovation from the audience. The group returned to perform a final encore, with Drucker joking “only because you [the audience] seem to like Dvorak.”
Then came what I found to be the most touching moment of the night. The group shared that they have made many friends within the Stanford community and that they “love the people and campus [at Stanford].” To celebrate its bittersweet farewell to Stanford, the Emerson String Quartet performed the seventh song from the vulnerable and heartfelt series of twelve love songs “Cypresses,” with the piece’s Czech title translating to “I Wander Oft Past Yonder House.”
With renewed energy after the standing ovation, Drucker delivered a striking and twinkling entrance on first violin. Both violinists took the bull by the horns and were practically shaking with emotion as they shifted in their seats to face each other and sway to the rhythm of the “slow waltz” turned to “wistful polka.”
The encore piece itself was very short, spanning just over a minute and a half, and ended on a melancholy note — a slightly incomplete ending that really pulled at my heartstrings. While the group could have chosen a bombastic piece to end with a bang, it was even more memorable that it chose to end on a bittersweet note. It is just another distinctive and creative choice that has allowed this ensemble to go down in the books as one of the most unique chamber music ensembles of both past and present generations; as Paul Phillips so accurately put it, having the privilege of watching the Emerson String Quartet deliver one of the final performances of its career was the equivalent of “seeing musical history being made.”
Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.