Reviews and Articles written by William Noll
January 12, 2011
Review: Emerson Quartet needed to warm up to huge Mann Hall acoustics

Naples Daily News

January 12, 2011

by William Noll

Sunday evening brought a packed house to the first event for the 62nd Community Concert Season in Fort Myers. The program opened with a few remarks from the vivacious matron herself, Barabara B. Mann. She turned 98 years young last week. The audience responded with a resonant chorus of "Happy Birthday!"

And what better music should there be to follow this opening number than anything performed by the world-famous Emerson String Quartet?

I was a bit timid about attending a string quartet concert in a venue that usually sports acts such as the Rockettes, "Wicked" and other blockbusters. Chamber music, by design, requires a much more tres intime scenario.

Further, the Mann's audience is decidedly not a chamber music one. This year's series includes "Turandot" and the National Philharmonic Orchestra of Poland. For the Emerson, they just HAD to applaud after every movement.

So, before the quartet walked out on stage, they had a few things to overcome. And it showed in their opening performance of Mozart's D Major Quartet. The first two movements were not the rock solid, well-balanced, in-tune showing that one would expect. But the third movement Menuetto brought them together with nicely balanced and shaped pairings with the viola and cello versus the two violins. The final Allegretto fared the best.

It seemed as though the quartet members were uncomfortable and could not settle into the acoustics of the big hall. They walked off stage for about five minutes or so. Maybe they had a little pow-wow about things.

Then they returned and delivered a brilliant performance of the Mendelssohn Quartet in E flat major. This is a technically demanding work that is very involving from the first note. Even the audience settled down and was drawn into the vortex of the work.

Especially notable was the deft playing of the Scherzo. Mendelssohn is a champ when it comes to writing Scherzi. (Think Scherzo to "A Midsummer Night's Dream.") They ended with plenty of fire in the finale, Allegro con fuoco.

Well, what to think? I was sitting downstairs about 15 rows from the stage. The Emerson performers stand (except the cellist) when they play. I was way under the level of the instruments. So I decided to move upstairs and check it out for the Debussy Quartet. This piece requires not only virtuosity, but a heightened sense of delicacy, nuance and ensemble.

What a difference: The sound had much more presence upstairs. The rhythm, intonation and balance were all there in spades for this masterpiece of Debussy. Additionally, this was imbued with a sense of spontaneous passion, which is at the heart of all great performances.

The evening progressed like a great bottle of cabernet. As it breathed, it just kept getting better and better.

The violinists, Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, interchanged their roles on first and second parts. Along with their superb colleagues violist Lawrence Dutton and cellist David Finckel, these awesome musicians need to be thanked for bringing us a superb evening.

And I hope they might be available for my 98th birthday, as well.

William Noll is artistic director of Classic Chamber Concerts in Naples.

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