Emerson String Quartet | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Emerson String Quartet 

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What's the best string quartet in the world? Some might pick the Juilliard, others the Arditti, and a few partisans of new music the Kronos. But I'm convinced that among the people who'd bother ranking quartets in the first place, most would choose the Emerson. Formed in 1976 and based in New England--the group takes its name from poet Ralph Waldo--the Emerson has only improved on the technical finesse, graceful phrasing, and cultivated sense of rhythm that distinguished it early on. Though quartets often develop aesthetic disagreements over time, resulting in stunted musical growth or even personnel turnover, the Emerson has had the same lineup since 1979--and because violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer alternate at first chair, their subtle interpretive differences have helped keep the ensemble from sinking into a rut. Crucial to its success is the balance among the players. No one takes a backseat, but at the same time no one overshadows the group's collective character: warm, rigorous but not brittle, and capable of clarifying the structure of a piece without sounding pedantic. The Emerson has recorded the complete string quartets of both Bartok and Beethoven, collections that are already considered definitive, and the quartet's treatment of living composers is equally assured (its commissions and premieres include pieces by William Bolcom, Wolfgang Rihm, Ellen Zwilich, and Ned Rorem). It's also worth noting that an Emerson recital invariably attracts a large contingent of classical musicians--people who, as a general rule, don't make the time to attend one another's concerts unless they know they're going to learn something. For this Ravinia engagement, the Emerson's first local appearance in three years, the program includes a nod to the festival's summerlong survey of the Second Viennese School: Webern's Five Movements, a characteristically concise piece that straddles his early classical style and the compact, dissonant idiom he was to develop. Also on the bill are Mendelssohn's String Quartet no. 2 and Brahms's String Quartet in C Minor; completed in 1827 and 1873 respectively, they can be seen as milestones marking the beginning and end of German Romanticism's full flowering in chamber music. Wednesday, July 25, 8 PM, Martin Theatre, Ravinia Festival, Green Bay and Lake Cook Rds., Highland Park; 847-266-5100.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tom Specht.

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