Throughout its many years in existence, the Chamber Arts Society of Durham has cultivated relationships with some of the most prestigious ensembles in the world of chamber music. One of those is the Emerson String Quartet, which has appeared at Duke University at least every other year for the past 20 years. This performance, for us, represented the end of an era as it was the final performance with David Finckel as cellist. At the conclusion of this concert season, he will be replaced by Paul Watkins. Not even the parking gridlock brought on by the 7 p.m. kickoff of the Duke-Carolina football game could dissuade fans of this quartet and this bittersweet occasion. There was a full house.

The program was a wonderfully balanced evening of works and a perfect showcase for the Emerson Quartet’s talents. We traveled from the traditional to the nearly brand new and then a mix of very different 20th century masters. The evening began with Mozart’s String Quartet in D, K. 499. Labeled as the “Hoffmeister” quartet, this is a work that, for its time, had the relatively rare distinction of being published as a stand-alone work and not part of a set. It’s somewhat counter-intuitive, but even within a program of technically challenging modern works it may often be the “easy” classical period piece that can be the most treacherous in performance. This typical Mozart quartet, especially in the adagio, revealed this musical trap. Despite perfect intonation and technical mastery, the overall effect sounded like there was some wandering concentration and “playing through” the music. This changed considerably with the next piece.

The British forty-year-old Thomas Ades has risen to the top tier of contemporary composers, with one of his trademarks being tremendously complex rhythmic structures that can require musicians to revisit their college calculus course. OK, a bit of an exaggeration, but a time signature of 25/16 will surely elicit anxiety. The Four Quarters, written in 2010, is a kind of “Seasons” but covers the progression of one complete day. “Nightfalls,” the first movement of four, is a hauntingly evocative closely intertwined duo between violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, while violist Lawrence Dutton and cellist David Finckel supported them with eerie, unstable harmonies. “Morning Dew” was a bows down affair as all players plucked their way into a nearly orgiastic frenzy before some calming arco playing greeted the rising sun. The previously mentioned 25/16 time signature was revealed in the final “The Twenty-fifth Hour” which showed the ease that the Emersons masterful playing and ability to communicate complexity made it all sound natural and inevitable. This was virtuoso playing and original compositional skills at its highest level and the audience seemed in rapture at the confluence of all of these enormous talents.

Ready, set, go…uh oh, I have the wrong music! It can happen to the best of us. While the three upper strings began the second half with the plaintive opening measures of Aaron Copland’s Lento (from Two Pieces for String Quartet), cellist Finckel played a loud, jagged cello line. He quickly realized he was instead playing the Shostakovich quartet. A good laugh was had by all and they began again with all four on the same page – so to speak. This is a brief work that is instantly recognizable as Copland. Big intervals and long lush lines were played with luscious tone and soul-reaching expression. About halfway in, it became a supported solo for cell,o and Finckel gave us a profoundly beautiful example of why the cello is often referred to as the instrument that most closely resembles the human voice.  

The Emerson Quartet is unique in two respects: except for cellist Finckel, they always perform standing up, and Drucker and Setzer alternate first/second violin duties. Another observation is that even standing – when performers tend to move more – the Emerson Quartet is one of the most statue-like group of musicians in their nearly complete lack of extraneous movements. There goes the sometimes advanced argument that physical exuberance is somehow an indicator of involvement and passion.  

Without denigrating the other works/composers on the program, it is the Shostakovich quartet that unleashed all the power and emotional wallop of this esteemed ensemble, and riveted the audience’s minds and hearts to every note. This 12th of fifteen quartets, written in 1968, is arranged as one moderato movement followed by a group of three played without pause. Although it is written that this work uses “twelve-tone” elements, I truly doubt that it would be identified as such by an unbiased hearing. This quartet has all the elements of the style that is unmistakably Shostakovich: a sardonic, skewed sense of melody; nearly unbearably angst-laden slow movements; relentlessly driven finales that take performers to their technical and interpretive limits. The Emerson Quartet, with David Finckel as its cellist, bid farewell to our community with this extraordinary performance that held nothing back. It was an emotionally draining and revealing experience that set a very high bar for their upcoming revised configuration.