That the Emerson String Quartet has long been at the top of the heap of consistently exceptional chamber music ensembles is a given. It’s also true that these artists have in recent years been making fewer appearances in North Carolina than was once the case. As a result, their concerts here have become keenly anticipated events – occasions, really – that tend to draw large crowds of enthusiastic music lovers. This was certainly the case when the ensemble visited the University of North Carolina School of the Arts for a sold-out concert that centered on the U.S. premiere of Lawrence Dillon’s String Quartet No. 5, titled “Through the Night,” a complex and fascinating score that was introduced to the world by the Emerson SQ in a concert in Köln (Cologne), Germany, on March 9. The new work was framed by music by Schubert and Dvorák. The sum made for a bracing and stimulating evening.

The UNCSA venue was the Judy and Bill Watson Chamber Music Hall, one of the visual and acoustic gems of our state. The Watsons also specifically supported the Emerson’s engagement through a new cooperative program instituted by the Kenan Institute for the Arts intended to bring world-class artists and ensembles to the school in order further to stimulate and augment the world-class artists who already serve on its faculty.

The concert began with Schubert’s Quartet No. 10, in E flat, D.87 (Op. 125/1), the next-to-last in a series of works from the master’s youth (although the prodigious composer has always been seen as youthful, given his tragically premature death). It works well when played with lots of animation or when delivered with greater seriousness, although it doesn’t plumb the emotional depths of the far larger, later scores. It received a heartfelt and deeply committed reading, precise and immaculate, that covered all the necessary ground and left the audience in awe of the players’ restrained mastery of their art.

One of the evening’s chief attractions was the first American performance of UNCSA Resident Composer Dillon’s latest work, the fifth in a projected series of six components of what he calls the “Invisible Cities String Quartet Cycle.” As he explained earlier in the day, these scores explore traditional musical forms; this one centers on variations, so it begins with a theme-and-[12]-variations movement and ends with a series of [8] Fantasy Variations. In between come a chaconne and a passacaglia in which there are many more variations, as it were, on the work’s main theme, which is the serene old Welsh tune “All through the night.” The composer explained that finding the ideal theme was a lengthy journey, for he felt he needed a tune audiences would, in general, know, and the tune had to be short and simple enough to allow for extensive variation. This is probably enough to know in order to appreciate the mechanics (for want of a better word) of the new work, but there’s one other gee wiz relational bit that helps make Dillon’s achievement truly remarkable, a relational bit that centers on the father of the Emerson’s cellist, David Finckel (who in his maturity has begun to resemble the late Sir Thomas Beecham). Dillon has related this story in several places, including Ken Keuffel’s fine preview article, published in the Winston-Salem Journal on April 4: the first living composer young Larry Dillon met, when he attended a summer music camp in Vermont, was Edwin Finckel. This means that, in a sense, this quartet, written for the Emerson String Quartet, is a tribute to a major influencer of its composer’s career. Roll all this together and you had the makings of an exceptional evening, even before the first note of the new work was heard.

Critics tend to dislike premieres, for there’s nothing in the extant literature to guide their thinking. (Some would say that critics tend to dislike new music, too, but that’s a subject for another dissertation!) This new work, however, is immediately accessible. It’s complex – there are 24 reasonably distinct parts jammed into its 33-minute time span, which means that some of those parts are less than a minute long. And, according to the program notes, each of the 12 variations in the first movement is in a different key. But the use of that familiar tune helps give the work a powerful sense of unity, despite the fact that some of the treatments of that tune or its component parts are so brief that one is left wondering, here and there, where the tune has gone. (It would be wonderful to hear this music again, and soon, and often, too – it’s that good, and it’s that complex – although one need not become embroiled in its complexity, for it works as a rock-solid finite musical experience, too.) When all is said and done, however, the work works on first hearing – and seems likely to continue to work in subsequent performances.

None of this is to say it’s particularly easy, as several members of the quartet noted earlier in the day and as Dillon readily admitted. But one of the delights of the Emerson players is that they can make hard things sound easy – so one of the miracles of this evening’s performance was the cool, calm approach to the music exuded by the visiting artists. Cellist Finckel appeared to be the most animated, his eyes sparkling and darting from colleague to colleague as he responded to or gave performance cues, and of course he might well have been relishing more than the other members Dillon’s inherent tribute to his father, too. All of them seemed to enjoy the work at hand – the physical labor as well as the score they so brilliantly brought to life. The crowd relished it, too, giving the artists and the composer a big ovation and recalling everyone to the stage several times. And the composer’s one-word response to our intermission question about the performance – did you like it? – said it all. His response was, “Yes!”

The grand finale was Dvorák’s Quartet No. 15 in A flat, Op. 105, his last completed quartet (for Op. 106 was finished before Op. 105, resulting in a numbering discrepancy corrected in Burghauser’s thematic catalog…). Here, too, the astonishingly facile playing of these masters of chamber music resulted in a reading that was probably as close to perfect as one is likely to experience this side of the great divide. As elsewhere during this program, they made the whole thing look and sound easy, which is part of the art, too. The audience members loved every minute and demonstrated their enthusiasm with a standing ovation that wasn’t limited merely to applause. The reward was one of Bach’s fugues as transcribed for string quartet by Mozart, after which we went away into the cool night with smiles on our faces and in our hearts.

During the afternoon, violist Lawrence Dutton and cellist David Finckel offered master classes and violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer participated in a panel discussion with composer Dillon on the creation and initial presentations of new works. The moderator of this session was Welz Kauffman, President and CEO of the Ravinia Festival. One must wonder why this important discussion didn’t draw a larger audience.

Note: The Emerson String Quartet plays the new Dillon work in Seattle on April 14. For details, click here [link inactive 7/10].