The 59th season of Duke University’s Chamber Arts Society kicked off on October 9 with some things old, some things new, and some people crying the blues because of some of these. Let’s face it: the demographics of the majority of the audience that supports this and other excellent chamber music series throughout the Triangle are people who know what they like and want it to remain that way. Despite the fact that the Emerson String Quartet just played on this series in March, 2003, there was great excitement and anticipation for a group that is regarded by many as the team to beat in the overcrowded field of numerous exemplary quartets. After all, how can anyone complain about hearing too much of a superb musical ensemble? It would be like saying that there is too much perfect fall weather.

Acoustical qualities of performing spaces are always factors for any size ensemble but especially so for the string quartet. Reynolds Auditorium has been the home of this series for many years, and it serves the audience, artists, and music well. Several weeks ago it was announced that this opening concert with the Emerson Quartet would move to Page Auditorium due to a run of Little Women: The Musical in Reynolds. While Page Auditorium has served the community for close to 70 years and hosted countless concerts featuring legendary artists, it lacks the sound quality and ambience that other, smaller venues possess.

Another change in this series was the decision to print all of the programs and notes for the concerts through 2004 in one reusable booklet. This is something that the North Carolina Symphony has done for years, and for the most part it is a nice feature. The downside – and admittedly a pet peeve of mine – is that it is just that much more paper for people to be rifling through and making noises with throughout the concert.

So on to the purpose of this, which is my impression of the Emerson String Quartet’s performance. Those who have not seen this group perform should know that they employ two unusual features: the two violinists alternate first and second violin parts, and they all play standing except for cellist David Finckel. (This brings to mind the hilarious image of Woody Allen playing cello in a marching band in his first film, Take the Money and Run .)

They began with Joan Tower’s String Quartet No. 3 (“Incandescent”), written for them in 2003. This is a virtuoso work comprising what is basically a series of solos for each individual instrument in a moto perpetuo style that keeps chugging away without pause. This is typical of Tower’s writing, leading her to proclaim that “I don’t do movements.”

The Second String Quartet of British composer Benjamin Britten was up next. These quartets are not performed very often, and this did not make me anxious to seek them out. Britten’s work often strikes me as very nice and correct but without the warmth of British composers like Vaughan Williams or any distinctive voice. By this point it was not only the composition that was lacking any real foothold with the audience – as I looked around, I could also tell that many people were, well, a bit bored and disengaged. It had to be the works chosen. After all it couldn’t be the playing itself…. Surely, one thought, things would improve in the second half, with one of the late Beethoven quartets, the Quartet in C Sharp Minor, Op. 131.

When writing reviews, I attempt to describe my feelings, based on what I heard. Unfortunately, on this evening, I had none. Over the past week I have heard people ranging from well-known local musicians to those who simply love music say pretty much the same thing: “I can’t quite put my finger on it, but something was missing.” There were a few intonation slips, but it was far more than that. There seemed to be a total disengagement from the audience and, more importantly, from the music. The fact that from most places in Page Auditorium the quartet sounded like four small transistor radios didn’t help, but the poor acoustics can’t be blamed for everything.

The playing of the Beethoven Quartet was “correct,” and I don’t mean that as a compliment. This was a “day at the office” performance that reinforced the idea of just buying the recordings instead of attending live concerts.

There are probably dozens of reasons why any performance in any art form does not have the emotional involvement that it should have: travel, fatigue, sickness, or other daily problems we all have. On the other hand, there may be people attending any given program who are trying classical music for the first time. I think we all deserve more than just technical perfection.