May 3, 2023

Emerson and Calidore String Quartets Join Forces for Dramatic Chamber Concert

By Nancy Plum

The Emerson String Quartet has been a frequent performer on the Princeton University Concerts series over the past decades. In this final season in the Emerson’s storied history, the Quartet returned to Richardson Auditorium last week for a program of Shostakovich and Mendelssohn, as well as a world premiere. However, the Emerson did not return alone; joining them in the second half of the program was the young and vibrant Calidore String Quartet, whose 10 years of performing has propelled the ensemble to the forefront of the performance arena. Although Thursday night’s concert belonged mostly to the Emerson Quartet, the addition of the Calidore players enabled a performance of a hidden gem of Mendelssohn chamber music.

For her 2002 string quartet, composer and Princeton native Sarah Kirkland Snider drew inspiration from the recordings of the Emerson String Quartet, and she has been well acquainted with their sound for quite some time. Drink the Wild Ayre, which received its world premiere by the Emerson Quartet in Thursday night’s concert, was also inspired by the Ralph Waldo Emerson’s descriptions of natural beauty, and one line of poetry in particular. From its opening measures played by Emerson first violinist Eugene Drucker, Snider’s work was an appealing piece with driving rhythms propelling thematic material forward. Violinists Drucker and Philip Setzer, violist Lawrence Dutton, and cellist Paul Watkins were often playing in similar registers, creating an unusually well-blended instrumental palette. Drucker and Setzer frequently paralleled each other in melodic material, while Watkins provided a rich cello line, especially in the upper register of the instrument.

Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s 1974 String Quartet No. 15 in E-flat Minor consisted of six consecutive “Adagio” movements capturing the composer’s decades of creating music under an oppressive political regime. The Emerson String Quartet began Shostakovich’s dark and personal work keeping the sound under wraps, emphasizing the unusual character of each movement. The folk-like fugue of the opening “Elegy” was initially presented by violinist Drucker, answered by violinist Setzer and unfurled by all four musicians, whose bows seemed never to leave the strings. The second movement “Serenade” was marked by sharp sforzandi executed with unusual upbows from all players, with first violinist Setzer impressively demonstrating double-stop sforzandi.

Lawrence Dutton’s lyrical viola line complemented the contrasting cello and second violin lines in a poignant “Nocturne,” and a “Funeral March” displayed arpeggios recalling “Taps” and a unison dotted rhythm recurring as a tragic reminder. Setzer’s swirling first violin solo over shimmering chords closed the Quartet in unsettled melancholy.

While Shostakovich’s piece conveyed despair and tragedy, Felix Mendelssohn’s String Octet in E-flat Major was a picture of exuberance and musical energy. Written when Mendelssohn was just 16 years old, the Octet was groundbreaking in its composition for an undivided chamber ensemble of two string quartets. The Emerson musicians were joined in this performance by the Calidore String Quartet, with the two sets of players facing each other, yet interestingly switching the chair placement of the two cellists. The Calidore cellist, Estelle Choi, proved to be a decisive instrumentalist, while Emerson cellist Watkins conveyed more delicate melodic lines. Although not quite dueling string quartets, the overall sound was definitely richer than normally heard in chamber music, and true to Mendelssohn’s instructions that the Octet should be played “in the style of a symphony.”


he first movement “Allegro” featured question-and-answer passages between the two sides of the stage, with the players continually watching one another. Mendelssohn scored different effects for each quartet, with the Calidore musicians often executing pizzicato against more intense lines from the Emerson Quartet. Emerson violinist Drucker often led the musical line with solo melodies, well matched by Calidore violinists Jeffrey Myers and Ryan Meehan, as well as violist Jeremy Berry. Cellists Watkins and Choi led the way in a fierce and intense second movement, as galloping rhythms contrasted with more delicate passages. All instrumentalists demonstrated fast and furious playing in the third and fourth movements of the Octet as motives traveled throughout the combined ensemble, and the concert drew to a celebratory close.