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Cutting Precious Stones: Emerson and Galway


Celebrity Series of Boston made it yet quite another evening of music-making, this time at New England Conservatory’s Jordan hall with Sir James Galway and the revered Emerson String Quartet. These goliaths enraptured a virtually sold-out house in a program that was equally as beguiling. Their appearance onstage only heightened the very fairy-tale-like nature of this dual outing, Friday March 11.

Sir James Galway, Eugene Drucker, Lawrence Dutton, and David Finckel brightened the hall, creating diamonds of the sonic kind throughout the Flute Quartet in D Major, K.285 of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, scored for flute, violin, viola and cello. In the opening Allegro, their splendid blending sparkled. The ensuing Adagio contrasted the bowless strings strummed in their instruments in the most finely cut accompaniment to the flute melody, singing away rock-structured, while purely, expressively surfaced. Just before each return of their gleaming Rondo tune of the concluding movement, the four carved out a momentary letup, causing each of the returns to shine all the more.

Next, Sir James took center stage, standing as close to the audience as he could. Looking left then right, at times even taking a step in either direction that would bring him still closer to us, Galway, in his own inimitable fashion, swirled through Syrinx for solo flute by Claude Debussy. It might be helpful to suggest that his choice of a faster tempo could compare to that transmitted polarized light necessary for revealing minute crystals forming an onyx. The knighted flutist exposed bands of white-to-earth tones such as those found in the onyx. The mineral process, “cryptocrystalline,” taken figuratively could very well describe his performance. For example, he produced at least seven different timbres for the final long-held low D-flat alone, these amazing bands of color ever so gradually, breathtakingly dying away — perdendosi, as Debussy indicates in the score.

All five artists touched Bostonian hearts in a rare performance of A Night Piece for Flute and String Quartet by Salem-born composer Arthur Foote. Though having slipped somewhat into obscurity, this piece had been one of Boston’s favorite concert pieces. After this performance, it will once again become so.

With violinist Philp Setzer, the Emerson Quartet formed precious stones of their own. They must be one of a handful of the very best string quartets in the world today. They played standing, with the exception of the cellist, whose chair was elevated by a podium. Cellist Finckel often smiled, but each player engaged us in his own way through unfettered passion and savvy. Together, they creatively adjusted and readjusted for that perfectly timed harmony, or perfectly nuanced melodic turn, or impeccably synchronized musical gestures. Their bows and strings could have been special diamond-bladed edges polishing and bruting to shape round brilliant cuts of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Opus 110 and Claude Debussy’s Quartet in G minor, Opus 10. Their “point cuts,” as it were, always followed the natural shape of the composer’s work.

For encores, the Emerson Quartet refreshed the admiring audience with a lovely performance of Antonin Dvorák’s Cypresses No. 3 from his song cycle for tenor and piano, which he later arranged for string quartet. In a vintage Galway move, the flutist spoke the names “Johann Sebastian” then signaled us to fill in the last name. “Bach,” we answered. He approved. We all laughed. For their break-neck speed delivery of the “Badinerie” (no surprise) from Suite No. 2 in B minor, BWV 1067 came a burst of laughter and a final gusty round of applause.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in  Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.

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