Bringing a new piece of music to life is a collaborative, communicative process. Composers invariably meet with the musicians premiering their work in order to discuss issues arising with the score and troubleshoot problems. For The Four Quarters, the new string quartet by Thomas Adès, that moment was in late January, when Adès stopped over to see the Emerson String Quartet in New York, en route from Miami to London. ‘I think we absorbed a sense of what the piece was about, as is often the case when we work together with a composer for the first time,’ says Eugene Drucker, violinist in the Emerson Quartet, of the session. ‘Tom was very nice and wasn’t expecting an absolutely polished performance, since it was still seven weeks until the premiere.’
Instead, the quartet had the opportunity to further realise the composer’s musical vision for The Four Quarters, which was commissioned by the Carnegie Hall, New York. ‘It has been a challenge to learn in certain ways,’ says Drucker. ‘The piece’s complexity comes from the rhythm, the way the measures are arranged. It’s sort of a new language we’ve been learning.’ The quartet discussed technical aspects of the work with Adès. For example, in the last movement, “The Twenty-fifth Hour”, the violins are required to alternate quickly between ‘artificial harmonics and normal notes’. Adès was ‘looking for a certain effect’ with this compositional device, says Drucker, and ‘it became clear that he was imagining a kind of yodelling effect, so I changed the way I was playing it.’
The meeting was also a chance for Thomas Adès to discuss the new work’s themes with the quartet, though Drucker suggests that the piece’s loose programmatic aspect could be more for the listeners than the musicians. ‘I don’t think it is something Tom wants to pin down exactly,’ he says. ‘The title refers to four times of day, but I’m not sure how much importance he wants us as performers to attach to the movement titles. Perhaps he’d like the audience to think of those titles while listening to the piece.’ Regardless of the technical challenges or the thematic aspects of the work, Drucker says that what has struck him most about The Four Quarters is the way ‘the beauty of its textures and the sense of overarching shape comes across in each of the four movements.’
The process of discovery Drucker describes is part of what appeals to the Emerson String Quartet about performing new music. ‘We play one or two contemporary works a year, and sometimes we carry over a work from the previous season, as we’ll do with Tom’s piece,’ says Drucker, although the ‘main thrust of our activity is with the standard repertoire.’ The two pieces framing The Four Quarters in this concert are as familiar to the Emerson Quartet as the Adès is new. The quartet have won Grammy awards for recordings of both the complete Mendelssohn (2005) and Beethoven (1997) quartets. Eugene Drucker describes the third Op.44 Mendelssohn quartet as ‘a pleasure to play even though it’s demanding technically’, while Beethoven’s Op.131 is ‘one of the great works of the entire string quartet literature’.
It is unusual for a quartet to frequently perform new music without making it a speciality, but the Emersons have always questioned long-held traditions, as can be seen in their name, taken from a poet-philosopher rather than a composer or instrumentalist. A well-known Emerson String Quartet innovation is their on-stage set up. The three upper strings stand while cellist David Finckel’s chair sits on a podium. The idea to break away from the conventional seating plan arose during the quartet’s 25th anniversary season in 2001, as Eugene Drucker explains: ‘We were performing six Haydn quartets at the Alice Tully Hall in the Lincoln Center, New York, and we were concerned that the programme would not have sonic impact enough to engage the audience’s attention.’ They hit on the idea of standing and found that ‘there’s something about getting our instruments farther from the floor of the stage that makes the sound project further.’
Tim Woodall © 2011
The Emerson String Quartet performs Thomas Ades’ The Four Quarters alongside works by Mendelssohn and Beethoven on Thursday 7 April. Click here for full details and to book.
Filed under: Chamber music, Classical season 10-11, Contemporary Classical, Get to know..., Misc, Queen Elizabeth Hall Tagged: | Classical, classical music, contemporary classical, Emerson String Quartet, International Chamber Music Season 2010-11, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Thomas Ades