VANCOUVER — The Emerson String Quartet, which retires from the concert stage at the end of this season, played an eloquent valedictory program Dec. 4 for Vancouver’s Friends of Chamber Music, which has long been the ensemble’s host on Canada’s West Coast.
Founded in 1976 at the Juilliard School, the Emerson has demonstrated extraordinary longevity and a lively approach to programming. It has recorded virtually all the standard repertoire over the decades, as well as esoterica by the likes of Egon Wellesz, Curt Cacioppo, Richard Wernick, and Gunther Schuller, and it is included on the BBC Music Magazine list of the ten greatest string quartets of all time.
The Emerson-Vancouver connection is a singular one. Founded in 1948, Friends of Chamber Music has invited the world’s best quartets to the city on a regular basis ever since; the venue of choice has been the 668-seat Vancouver Playhouse, also the scene of the Emerson farewell concert. Friends boasts a committed audience with a high level of connoisseurship devoted to classics of the chamber repertoire but also willing to give consideration to the new; programs this diamond jubilee year include music by Wynton Marsalis, Jörg Widmann, and György Ligeti.
In a short post-concert speech, violinist Philip Setzer reminded the audience of an extraordinary statistic: This was the 35th Emerson appearance for Friends. The organization really doesn’t believe in casual dating. Once an ensemble has proved its worth, it’s a keeper. Groups such as the Amadeus String Quartet, the Beaux Arts Trio, and the Borodin String Quartet have been welcomed back with agreeable frequency.
But the first encounter with the Emerson didn’t start out all that well, as Friends President Eric Wilson told me during the interval. On that occasion, a transportation glitch left the group stuck south of the U.S.-Canadian border. Not on Wilson’s watch! A plane was chartered; the ensemble then raced from the airport to the concert hall, playing in their traveling clothes for an audience that had waited patiently for three quarters of an hour.
There was certainly a sense of occasion to this final Vancouver performance and a full house of fans. Haydn’s Quartet in G major, Hob. III:41, opened the concert. It’s Emerson practice to alternate first violins; for the Haydn and the Shostakovich that followed, Eugene Drucker played first. The Haydn proved a perfect concert starter, terse but witty, filled with happy invention, always fresh and delightful. The Quartet’s approach is marked by a sort of no-nonsense practicality: Extremes are avoided, with a clear emphasis on clean, honest playing that avoids fussiness and indulgence.
The musical highlight of the afternoon performance was Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 12 in D-flat major, Op. 133. Friends has a special connection to Shostakovich: It hosted the Borodin Quartet in a Shostakovich cycle back in 1969 — before the composition of the last two entries in the Soviet composer’s quartet cycle. (A renewed Borodin reprised the now-complete cycle for Friends in 2015. The 12th Quartet isn’t exactly an easy sell for most audiences. In the context of the complete cycle of 15 quartets, it can feel a bit of an anomaly, with its complex two-movement, multi-tempo form and the use of 12-note thematic material. Ultimately, it’s an elegiac, disturbing opus that signals similar moods to come in the last two quartets, though in this particular instance the composer contrives a more or less upbeat conclusion.
As in the Haydn, this was honest playing that respected both the trajectory and the detail of the work; Shostakovich’s enriched palette of string colors, including numerous pizzicato effects and some astonishing sul ponticello sections, always felt just right, a logical outgrowth of the musical materials, not novelty for the sake of novelty.
The ensemble offered an exceptional choice as the final work for Friends of Chamber Music. As with many groups of remarkable longevity, the Emerson’s personnel has changed over the years. Violinists Setzer and Drucker have been with the group since its inception; violist Lawrence Dutton joined in 1977; cellist Paul Watkins became part of the ensemble in 2013. The Emerson’s first cellist was Eric Wilson (no relation to the Friends’ long-serving president), who left the ensemble to teach at the University of British Columbia. With Wilson in town, it seemed both obvious and apt to invite him to join the current Emerson complement in Schubert’ s great Quintet in C major, D. 956, very much the composer’s own goodbye to chamber music.
Sentiment was the hallmark of the reading, a relaxed and essentially sunny journey through one of the landmarks of the repertoire. Time was taken to savor the wealth of melodic materials, but there remained more than enough drama to make the extended work feel tight and purposeful and moving.
After the quintet’s enigmatic final cadence, the entire house rose for an extended ovation, a recognition of the impressive playing and just-right programming that had unfolded — and an affectionate, grateful farewell to a favorite ensemble.