PITTSFIELD — On a hill in Western Massachusetts, up a winding road from one of the main Berkshire County thoroughfares, lies a small gem of a concert hall, built especially for chamber music by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, one of the most important supporters and promoters of classical music in late 19th- and early 20th-century America. Coolidge was herself a highly accomplished pianist and a lover of chamber music, a genre that in those days was regarded as inferior to symphonic music. She funded many prizes and commissions, and established a foundation to support composers and performers in music. She was a strong advocate for new music and commissioned works from the leading contemporary composers of her time, including Copland, Bartók, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg.
In 1918 on the grounds of her estate in the Berkshires, Coolidge built the South Mountain Concert Hall, especially designed for chamber music, with only 440 seats and a small stage. The Colonial-style building was put together from old timbers and fitted with pews taken from a church; the acoustics are superb, combining warmth with clarity and transparency of sound, transmitted to every seat in the house. Menahem Pressler, a frequent performer at South Mountain, dubbed the small hall the “temple of chamber music.”
It was here, on Sunday afternoon, that the Emerson String Quartet, which has played in this magical place every year for 35 years, gave its last concert in Massachusetts. The quartet — which includes Philip Setzer and Eugene Drucker, violins; Lawrence Dutton, viola; and Paul Watkins, cello — will appear together for the very last time Oct. 22 at Lincoln Center in New York City.
The Emerson String Quartet was founded in 1976 by students at Juilliard and has performed around the world for the last 47 years. Since 1979, it has had only one change of personnel (the cellist, 10 years ago). From the beginning, the two founding violinists have alternated between playing first and second violin, a rare and unusually creative idea. The quartet’s big break came in 1987, when they were signed to an exclusive contract with Deutsche Grammophon for what was then the new CD medium. After 30 record albums, many thousands of concerts, nine Grammys, and many other distinctions and awards, the four musicians have decided to disband at the top of their game and pursue individual careers.
Their program on Sunday included Mozart’s dramatic String Quartet in D Minor, K. 421; Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in A minor, Op. 13, which was the first quartet he wrote, at the remarkable age of 18; Sarah Kirkland Snider’s brand-new “Drink the Wild Ayre”; and Ravel’s String Quartet, his first significant composition.
All the Emersons’ best qualities were in evidence at this concert: mesmerizing virtuosity, unanimity of vision, intelligent interpretation, and intensity of sound. Mozart chose the key of D minor for K. 421, a key of expressive depth, as evidenced by his other works that use it, works such as “Don Giovanni” and the “Requiem.” For a movement of such urgency, I found the performance too leisurely. As for the Mendelssohn, the Emersons know their music history and thoughtfully brought out Mendelssohn’s references to his model for Op. 13: Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 132, also in A minor.
Snider is a contemporary American composer who has been widely performed in the United States and abroad. The title of her quartet is a modified quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Emerson String Quartet’s namesake — “Drink the wild air’s salubrity.” The music nods overtly to nature with its twitters and echoes, though its progress is asymmetrical and often agitated. The Emerson String Quartet gave this new composition an elegant and committed performance.
The final work on the program was the Ravel quartet, and the musicians reveled in the richly varied sonorities of this masterpiece. The intense harmonic density, exotic coloring, and transparent counterpoint came through with the utmost clarity. Indeed, this performance demonstrated the reasons the Emerson has been so admired over the years: perfect intonation, flawless musicianship, complete unanimity of expression, and a thorough understanding of the spiritual and emotional essence of the music. The performance was spellbinding. In the hall, one heard the special sound of some 400 people not breathing.
With heartfelt solemnity and spoken thanks from the stage, the quartet gave its audience an encore from a transcription of Bach’s final chorale. The audience responded with an ovation filled with bravos, and, knowing they had experienced a rare moment in musical history, drifted out quietly into the early autumn air. The falling leaves, not yet colored, were beginning to strew the grassy surrounds of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge’s gift to chamber music lovers.
The accomplishments and dedication of the Emerson String Quartet over their nearly half-century of music making will not be forgotten.
EMERSON STRING QUARTET
At South Mountain Concert Hall, Pittsfield. Sept. 10. www.southmountainconcerts.org
Jeremy Yudkin is Professor of Music at Boston University and co-founder and co-director of Boston University’s Center for Beethoven Research.