01 September, 2009

Artist interview - Emerson String Quartet

Image: Emerson String Quartet. Photo: Mitch Jenkins

We spoke to the Emerson String Quartet ahead of their performance at the Queen's Hall this Friday at 11am. Limited tickets are still available from eif.co.uk/emerson.

Can you tell us about your background and how the Emerson String Quartet formed?
We met as students of Oscar Shumsky at the Juilliard School. We formed a student quartet in the early 1970s, which evolved gradually into a professional ensemble. Our current membership dates from autumn 1979.

Do you find that there are many differences between audiences you’ve played to in different parts of the world?
I would say that the main differences are not so much between different countries as they are, even within one country, between audiences that are sophisticated about chamber music and those that are somewhat less so. When we first toured Germany in 1983, we noticed how quiet the audiences were while we played. That gave the impression that they were listening more attentively than audiences in the U.S., where we were used to a fair amount of coughing during the performances. The applause and vocal reactions after each piece seem to be more enthusiastic or impassioned in Germany, Austria and Switzerland than, say, in Italy, where the response to chamber music is more tempered than at opera performances. This leads one to the conclusion that since most of the repertoire we play was written in Central Europe, it elicits the most intense reaction in the countries where it originated. However, it is important not to overgeneralise and to remember that music will speak directly to any listeners who are open to it, no matter what their background or nationality may be. Over the years we have developed a very warm rapport with our audiences in London. Even within the U.S., we notice a large range of reactions.

What do you see as the main differences between performing in a festival programme and performances in other seasons?
In festivals there is the stimulus of other musicians whom we might hear, and who might listen to our performances. Often there is thematic programming, and this year at many festivals we have programmed either Haydn or Mendelssohn, or both, because of Haydn's death and Mendelssohn's birth in 1809.

Is there a piece of music that you are particularly looking forward to performing at the Festival?
All three pieces on our programme are great. It is interesting to juxtapose Mendelssohn's early Op. 12 with Beethoven's "Harp" Quartet, Op. 74, because of their similarities. The influence of Beethoven can be clearly felt, especially in the slow introduction to the first movement. Then we play Mendelssohn's last completed quartet, Op. 80, written in great anguish after the death of his sister, and shortly before his own demise. This driven, obsessive work brings Mendelssohn closer to the stormy spirit of Beethoven, even though there may not be a specific model as was the case with both Opp. 12 and 13, and points to a radical new direction that Mendelssohn's music would have taken had he lived longer.

Have you attended the Edinburgh International Festival before, if so what are your observations of the Festival?
Though we've played once at the Queen's Hall, it was not during the Festival, which we are looking forward to.

Why do you think people should come to the Emerson String Quartet at the Edinburgh International Festival?
Perhaps the fact that it is our festival debut, and only our second appearance in Scotland, will be of some interest. Through our recordings, and broadcasts of our London concerts on the BBC, we hope that we have a following among classical music lovers throughout the British Isles.

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