Last night, I finally saw the Emerson String Quartet at Alice Tully Hall. Honestly, it was nothing short of magic. I briefly contemplated writing a review (here is the New York Times’ attempt), but there is really nothing to say, besides the obvious fact that they are perfection. It was the first time I had ever seen a string quartet in such a well-engineered space, and as I waited to get my CD signed (first in line, as always) by these four musicians, I thought about why it was so worth it watching a string quartet live.
1. movement. String quartets consist of two violins, one viola, and one cello. In a well-written string quartet, all instruments feature prominently; the cello will solo for a bit, the violins, and then the viola. They all get their chance in the spotlight, they all get their chance to contribute to harmony. A lot of the fun intricacies of string quartets involve hearing how these instruments interact and interweave with each other. Nonetheless, for a majority of people, it is sometimes hard to differentiate between the first violin and second violin, between the violin and viola and even between a well-played cello (nailing those high notes!) and viola. Even for me, I need to read scores to even start thinking about the interplay between the instruments. However, when attending a string quartet concert I do not even need to think, I can just look— I can connect the different sounds immediately to each instrumentalist as their bowing easily gives them away. What is more, I can see the violinist and the cellist exchanging glances, the violist breathing at key moments. I can visualize the piece in a much richer way without having to tediously read the score. Within the group, chamber music is a highly social performance, requiring frequent nonverbal communication; thus, the physical presence of each player is crucial and what makes it so rewarding for audiences to see them live.
2. sound. Most of us do not have the good fortune to live in a house with a private concert hall, or a sound system with acoustics that makes our house sound like a concert hall. Even then, the sound quality from the CD or mp3 might still be lacking. In my experience, the sound generated from live classical music performances have the wonderful quality of filling the room, literally surrounding the audience in a rich expanse of music clouds. I believe this quality is called “echo.” The sound of a cello filling an empty space specially engineered for it cannot be matched– the small and subtle echo the hall gives the cello life beyond the flat recording we usually listen to. Tip: this echo is especially amazing for string instruments in intimate settings, hint, Emerson String Quartet in Alice Tully Hall.
I am already looking to see the Emerson String Quartet again, 2 December 2012 in Jordan Hall. If you are in the Boston area then and are a classical music enthusiast, perhaps we should meet up! Let me know before September passes.