It might be a stretch to call them the Beatles of classical music, but if the Liverpudlians gave me a deeper appreciation of blues and R&B-based music, the Emersonians opened my eyes to the elegant soulfulness of string quartets.
Not that I hadn’t dabbled previously, but seeing the renowned Juilliard String Quartet seemed like a cerebral almost church-like exercise. The hip Kronos Quartet went too much in the other direction, devolving into the I’m-too-sexy-for-my-shirt kitsch of Jimi Hendrix’ “Purple Haze.”
But sometime in the late ‘80s, a friend asked if I wanted to see the Emerson String Quartet perform an all-Beethoven concert in Woodstock, New York, I had a better time there than I did at the Woodstock rock and mud festival in the ‘60s.
Here were four guys who not only played with grace and passion but who seemed to be having a spirited conversation with each other through their instruments, with Ludwig van as interlocutor. What’s more, the quartet — violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violist Lawrence Dutton and cellist David Finckel -- were actually having fun. Much of the sparkle was provided by Finckel, who leaned into his cello like Roger Federer leaning into a forehand, darting a smile toward one of his mates here or a raised eyebrow there.
And to quote Bela Lugosi, “What music they make.” I’ve been going to almost all their Celebrity Series of Boston concerts since then and many of their Tanglewood concerts as well. Their hair has gone grayer (or gone missing) since Woodstock and they've sat back down since deciding at the turn of the millennium that their tone was better standing up. Time and gravity march on even as the music remains masterful.
All great things come to an end, alas. Jan. 22 is the Boston stop of their farewell tour, sans Finckel, who left in 2013 to take on myriad other projects, most of them with his wife, pianist Wu Han. Paul Watkins, a renowned cellist and affable presence in his own right, replaced Finckel.
Drucker and Setzer are the two original members, forming the group in 1976, with Dutton joining a year later and Finckel in 1979. Those four constituted the quartet that most people identify as the Emersons, particularly since they’re the group whom the prestigious label Deutsche Grammophon signed as more or less the house band for quartet music.
DG was well-rewarded for the choice. Time magazine called them "America’s greatest quartet" and they won nine Grammys, including their three must-have box sets of the complete Beethoven, Bartók and Shostakovich quartets, along with their equally fine recording of the two Ives quartets. The group and Ives share a deep admiration for the quartet's philosophical namesake, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Is it reflected in their playing? I think so, partly by a less European, more American outlook and a philosophical quest that goes beyond the notes.
The Boston concert will sample from each of the three box sets, along with African American composer George Walker’s “Lyric for Strings.” And even those with conservative tastes needn't be put off by the program. They make almost everything they play fully accessible. The Walker, at its best, is reminiscent of Samuel Barber's famous quartet.
While no one will confuse them with contemporary specialists like the JACK Quartet or Kronos, the fact that the Emersons are bowing out with a concert of mostly 20th and 21st Century music speaks to their underappreciated adventurousness. They’ve participated in two theatrical adaptations of Shostakovich, a coproduction of "The Noise of Time" with Simon McBurney and Complicité in 2001 and "Shostakovich and the Mad Monk" in 2017, the first of which I saw via the Mass. International Festival of the Arts and the second at Tanglewood.
Also at Tanglewood, the Emersons were part of the all-star world premiere of Tom Stoppard and the late Andre Previn’s "Penelope" with Renée Fleming, Uma Thurman and pianist Simone Dinnerstein in 2019. Ideally, that and other premieres would have made it to CD, like Kaaja Saariaho’s "Terra Memoria" and Wolfgang Rihm’s "Concerto, Dithyrambe for String Quartet and Orchestra" with the Cleveland Orchestra under Christoph von Donhanyi, but DG and subsequent labels apparently weren’t interested. At least we got to hear the latter in a memorable 1993 Celebrity Series concert.
Those missing pieces notwithstanding, the Emersons leave a remarkable legacy, richer in my book than any string quartet including the Juilliards. Jan. 22, like all goodbyes, will be sad, but what a privilege it’s been to have been along for such a joyful ride. And the second of Beethoven's Razumovsky quartets portends a joyful sendoff for the group.
You know the saying. As one door closes, another one opens. The Boston Globe's Jeremy Eichler turned me on to the Danish String Quartet a few years ago, namely their sublime "Prism" series in which they connect late Beethoven quartets back to Bach and forward to later composers — Shostakovich, Schnittke, Bartók and Mendelssohn.
That won't be the focus of the Jan. 27 Celebrity Series concert, which features Haydn, Britten and Shostakovich in the first half. The Danes also feature a crystalline tone, lively dialogue and the Emerson-like ability to make a composer like Shostakovich as accessible as Beethoven as pertinent to our time as are contemporary composers. (And since they are the next generation there's hipper and more abundant hair.)
I've yet to see them in concert, but reviewing their complete traversal of the Beethoven quartets at Alice Tully Hall, the New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini wrote, "There is a winning mix of studied concentration and willful freedom in their playing. 'All Scandinavians feel like they have a bit of an anarchist inside them, Asbjorn Norgaard, the group’s violist, said in a 2016 interview. That came through during this entire series."
Another notable aspect of the quartet's repertoire is their championing of Nordic folk music which sounds a lot like Irish folk music. That will complete the Jan. 27 Celebrity Series concert, also at Jordan Hall. Here they are playing an NPR Tiny Desk Concert.
How many string quartet concerts leave you dancing? This could be a first.
The Celebrity Series of Boston presents the Emerson String Quartet's final Boston concert at 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 22, at New England Conservatory's Jordan Hall and the Danish String Quartet at 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 27, also at Jordan Hall.