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Emerson String Quartet opens 2014's Toronto Summer Music Festival

The Emerson String Quartet opened up the 2014 season of the Toronto Summer Music Festival
The Emerson String Quartet opened up the 2014 season of the Toronto Summer Music Festival
Photo courtesy of Toronto Summer Music, used with permission

The Toronto Summer Music Festival is a yearly event that showcases the city's breadth and width of musical styles and talents, and it began its 2014 season on July 22 with the Emerson String Quartet, which played to a near sold-out audience at Koerner Hall. The Emerson String Quartet, heading into their 38th year as a quartet, appeared in Toronto for the first time with cellist Paul Watkins, who joined the group in just May of last year. On the program were three different composers: Beethoven, with "String Quartet in F Minor, Op.95 'Serioso'"; Britten, with "String Quartet No. 2 C Major, Op.36"; and Schubert, with "String Quartet in D Minor, D810, 'Death and the Maiden'"

At first glance, a lineup of these three composers seems to offer little in common. Beethoven was an 18th century composer who helped bridge the Classical and Romantic eras of classical music, while Britten is one of the 20th century's looming icons for his ability to pen an opera and symphony equally well. That leaves Schubert, a 19th century Romantic composer who inspired the likes of Mendelssohn, Schumann, Liszt and Brahms. But given that the theme of this year's Toronto Summer Music Festival is "The Modern Age", the linkage of the trio makes more sense, as the modern era is more about experimentation and dissemblance than most others.

Toronto Summer Music Festival artistic director Douglas McNabney strode out onstage to say a few words about this year's festival, kindly reminding the audience to remember to turn their cellphones back on after the show, at which there would be a champagne reception. He got applause, of course -- polite applause -- but it was the Emerson Quartet everyone came to hear and when they walked on in cream-coloured jackets, white bowties and black slacks, the reception was quite enthusiastic. They wasted no time in getting down to play, starting off with Beethoven.

As a classical music group, the Emerson String Quartet is a highly seasoned one, having won nine Grammy Awards to date and recording dozens of albums. They're consummate professionals, and it showed from the first bow stroke. Their playing of Beethoven's "Serioso", an energetic piece in four movements, really came to life and by the time the four musicians paused with their bows in the air, signalling the finale, the audience knew they had witnessed something special.

Better yet was their performance of Britten's "String Quartet No. 2", which featured fiery passages contrasted with legato bowings. In the program, it was noted that Britten felt this work marked a significant leap forward, where he borrowed on tradition to forge new paths, and it was never more evident than the contrapuntal playing near the end. Violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violist Lawrence Dutton, and Watkins each took turns playing long, drawn-out notes while the others played skittery eighths, and the effect was a jarring, yet marvellously interesting, juxtaposition of old styles and new beginnings.

Watkins, in particular, was the highlight of the evening. In just over a year, he's established his personality firmly within the quartet, bringing a youthful liveliness that balances out the seriousness of the Emerson String Quartet's playing. With his animated head motions and intense playing, he's made classical music fun to watch, and a joy to listen to. It's not that the group ever lacked anything before, but Watkins has elevated them to a new level.

And if Tuesday's performance was any indication of what's to come in the rest of the Toronto Summer Music Festival, this year is bound to be a good one.