As has become the norm with the Mostly Mozart Festival in recent years, the Monday, July 30th Emerson String Quartet concert at Alice Tully Hall included some unusual programming choices. Aided and abetted by guest violist Ms. Nokuthula Ngwenyama, the quartet became a quintet and presented a fascinating program of less familiar works by some very familiar composers to the sold-out house.

The first two pieces were quite short, lagniappes for what was to come.

Henry Purcell (1659-1695) is a composer most usually associated with a composition that isn't even his (Jeremiah Clarke's "Trumpet Voluntary", often played as a wedding processional). However, he was a composer of of importance and stature in his native England, and was quite imaginative at that. Fantasia upon one note, for Five Viols in F major , composed for the ancestor of the modern string family, gives one of the five quintet members just one note to play. In this case, the chosen "soloist" was Ms. Ngwenyama, who played this one note in a slow but steady drone for the duration of the piece while the other instruments wove their individual melodies over, under, and around it. The piece BWW Review: THE EMERSON QUARTET BECOMES A QUINTET FOR A NIGHT at Alice Tully Hall At Lincoln Centerclocked in at just three minutes, which was probably more than enough for Ms. Ngwenyama!

The second brief piece on the first half of the concert was a re-imagined Fugue BWV 849 from Johann Sebastian Bach's (1685-1750) Well Tempered Clavier, Book 1 from 1722. Originally in the multi-sharped key of C# minor, this Fugue was transcribed by E.A. Förster (from the original piano version) for string quintet in the far more string-friendly key of D minor. Förster gave each member of the quintet- two violins, two violas, and cello- its own voice. The quintet made the most of this piece, letting each member shine in momentary solos or duets. The team playing of Ms. Ngwenyama and Lawrence Dutton, the Emerson's outstanding violist, demonstrated attentiveness to each other's musical and visual cues, enabling an instrument that is usually a hard to discern inner voice to become a more prominent member of the ensemble.

It should be said that the viola is very difficult to play well and with the same agility as a violin. The strings are longer and thicker, plus the violist is reading his/her part in alto clef, which, if one only plays treble or bass clef, takes some getting used to. The violists in tonight's quintet were more than up to the task, making their instruments sing and their fingers dance. In the two major quintet pieces that followed, this was more than evident.

W.A. Mozart (1756-1791) was not only a gifted pianist and violinist, he was also a gifted violist. When he wrote string quartets, he would sometimes take them to the home of Josef Haydn and play through them with two other local (Viennese) musicians. Mozart usually took the viola part. He must have liked being a harmonic voice because he wrote some terrific viola parts for himself! In his String Quintet in G minor K.516 from 1787, all of the parts are equal. The two violinists, Eugene Drucker (first) and Philip Setzer (second), traded places for the Bach and Mozart pieces. Mr. Setzer led with sweetness and sometimes sorrow, and helped the group produce their first notes as if coming from thin air. This was especially true in the third movement. The sun came back out again in the final movement. Paul Watkins played his cello with an air of obvious enjoyment and love of his tricky part, and was the heartbeat of the entire group.

For the final piece on the program, the Emerson Plus One performed Felix Mendelssohn's (1809-1847) String Quintet in B flat major, Op.87, composed in 1845. Mr. Drucker led the "horse-race" of a first movement and the rest of the piece with firmness and authority. Clarity of playing, along with precise, expressive music-making, were the hallmarks of their performance. And they all played with such joy! It was obvious to the audience that these five people were having the time of their lives tearing into this vigorous work. Eye contact was constant (vital to a small ensemble), and when the "horse-race" returned for the end of the final movement, they pulled out all the stops for a rousing, exciting finish.

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From This Author Joanna Barouch

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