Introducing repeat Grammy winners the Emerson String Quartet from the stage as the "premier quartet of our day," Fred Child, host of "Performance Today," was on hand for the ensemble's second consecutive all-Dvorak concert in the rotunda of the Telfair Academy, part of the Festival's Sensations series.
(For the uninitiated, the Sensations are in some people's estimation the shining moment of the Savannah Music Festival: Chamber music played by the world's best chamber players, in a historic setting that is absolutely appropriate and authentic for the genre.)
Childs joked about his recent trip to tiny Spillville, Iowa, where Dvorak wrote his famous "American" quartet, the headline piece of this evening's concert. The house where the Czech composer wrote the piece is now occupied by the Bily Clocks Museum of antique timepieces. Apparently, under the museum's sign is a small footnote: "... and Antonin Dvorak exhibit."
Childs teased the audience pre-show by saying that Festival Associate Artistic Director Daniel Hope would soon make an announcement about "playing music where music has never been played before." The next day -- April Fools Day -- the world found out that Hope was scheduled to play his violin in space on British billionaire Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic private spaceship (!).
But it's no joke -- the near-space flight is scheduled for Christmas Day.
Back to the Emerson String Quartet: Founded in 1976, the Quartet has comprised the same four members ever since: violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, who alternate first and second violin; Lawrence Dutton on viola, and David Finckel on the cello (who, it must be said, bears an uncanny resemblance to my friend, local soundman Paul Mazo).
The four took the stage in what appeared to be business suits -- chamber players usually wear either tuxes or chic black attire -- and proceeded to handle the Dvorak program in a suitably business-like style.
This evening we would hear the String Quartet No. 14 and selections 7-14 from the song cycle "Cypresses" (the first six were essayed the night before in the Rotunda), with the second half of the program consisting of the aforementioned "American" Quartet, No. 12 in F.
I was lucky enough to hear the Czech Republic's own Prazak Quartet play this same piece in this same space at last year's Savannah Music Festival, one of the best concerts I've heard in my life. How did this concert match up?
The Emerson String Quartet plays with a famously muscular boldness which one would think is perfectly attuned to the bravado of the Czech composer. Their bow attack, especially in the violins, is palpably aggressive.
But in all candor I found myself missing the sweet soulfulness of the Prazak Quartet, who seemed to have a softer touch and a better handle on the subtle emotionalism of the piece, and hence of the composer himself.
Am I saying there was a problem with the Emerson String Quartet this night? Of course not -- they remain the premier quartet of their day, as Childs said.
In the final analysis, it's a matter of preference. So would you rather have Joe Montana or Tom Brady as your quarterback? They have different styles, but both are winners. -- Jim Morekis