Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Emerson String Quartet, April 17 2012

Last night Mighty Reader and I went to hear the Emerson String Quartet play an evening's worth of Mozart chamber music, the "King of Prussia" set of late quartets. We're both fans of the ESQ and we catch their performance whenever they come to Seattle. I'm a longtime fan of Mozart and I was hoping that this would convert Mighty Reader to the faith.

The program:
String Quartet No. 21 in D major, K. 575 (1789)
String Quartet No. 22 in B-flat major, K. 589 (1790)
Adagio and Fugue, K. 546 (1788)
String Quartet No. 23 in F major, K. 590 (1790)

The playing was, of course, excellent. Eugene Drucker moves a lot more than I remembered and I never noticed before that his bowing isn't exactly parallel to the bridge. Still, I like his tone a lot and all four of the guys have technique to spare. You might think that Mozart is trivial music, but a lot of the passagework in these pieces requires serious chops.

The king of Prussia for whom these quartets were written was a good amateur cellist, so David Finckel had a good share of the melody. Too bad the king of Prussia didn't come through and actually pay Mozart for a whole set of six quartets; I'd sure like to hear three more in this vein. David Finckel, by the way, is leaving the ESQ after the 2013 season, so if the boys come to your town before then, be sure to go. I'm certain Finckel's replacement will be a fine player, but it won't be the same. It never is.

I don't think that last night's show made Mighty Reader a follower of Mozart, but she certainly liked the adagio and fugue. Who can blame her? Me, I liked all the parts. I've heard these quartets before (courtesy of the Alban Berg Quartet) but I'd never noticed that a lot of surprising stuff happens in the middle movements; there are passages that don't sound like Mozart at all: there are passages that sound like 20th-century music, even. Yes, Mozart uses a lot of the same gestures in many of his pieces and certainly his style was often one of variations on a single theme, but what of it? It's all gorgeous and his sparse textures do not equal fluffy music. He does things with gapped melodies and using non-chord tones on stressed beats that I don't hear in anyone else, and he lets those brief chromatic figures crop up in surprising spots, and he has a way--does old Wolfgang--of modulating to new keys that's effortless and tugs inside my soul somehow. It's just, as I am so fond of saying, marvelous stuff. The more familiar I become with Mozart's music, the more I actually play his stuff on my own violin, the more I admire it. People discount Mozart because his music is so beautiful on the surface and then they don't notice that it's beautiful below the surface, too.


  1. I adore Mozart. I love that you listen to it and play it as well.

  2. I played some Mozart last night! He was a pretty good violist and his father Leopold literally wrote the book on playing the violin.

  3. Really? Oh, wow, the things I don't know, I swear. All this research for my selkie book has been craziness. I can't believe how late it was that people actually started using forks.

  4. There's a scene in Cocke & Bull where someone lights a candle and I wanted her to just use a match. Then I found out that my book, set in 1749, is about 75 years too early for matches. Who knew? I'm always startled to learn when stuff was actually invented. They had cannons and telescopes in 1604 but they didn't have matches until 1825 or whenever. The research for my 1935 book was crazy. I read thousands of pages of stuff and probably still got my facts wrong. What can you do?

  5. Just get to a point where you accept that it's fiction, is pretty much all you can do. :)

    I was surprised to learn that proper "tea time" was not really invented until 1840. That's good to know about the matches.

    I'm also sure my dialogue is completely inaccurate, but I'm not going to fix that. I'm trying to at least get the tone right.

  6. And, by the way, I was really impressed with your details in The Last Guest.

  7. I think getting the tone right in dialogue is really the important thing. Nobody wants to read, for example, a novel where all the characters actually speak Elizabethan English. Or even Colonial American English. We just need to serve up a believeable flavor of speech.

    There are lots of good and easily-available scholarly texts on life during the Depression. The main thing to keep in mind is that characters shouldn't explain any of the historical elements. "Lord Snogsworthy, who as you remember was beheaded for his involvement of the Beastly Plot--which as you recall was the attempt to assassinate the Earl of Wicksburh, built this castle. As you well know." and that sort of thing. I figure that if someone would've taken something for granted at the time, I should do the same as the narrator, too. I have the hotel owner singing "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf" but I don't explain that it was a sort of theme song for the hoped-for economic recovery in 1935. The character already knows what it is, and that's good enough. Avoid writing a history text, that's my advice!

  8. Yes, I definitely hear you about no explaining things, and I agree. The hard balance I'm finding right now is that my main character has sailed to a new country as an indentured servant and a lot of things are new for her, so I am explaining a bunch of things and it feels wrong, but right and I'm just trying to figure out what works best and where that balance is. She wouldn't be thinking much about the tea, for instance, but definitely thinking about the dynamics of the master/servant setup as she serves that tea.

    Your advice is excellent, and I'm keeping it at the forefront as I write. :)