They are becoming increasingly rare, but in baseball there used to be something called a “twinight” doubleheader: a late afternoon game followed by another one under the lights. Applying this concept to two distinct programs by one of the most celebrated string quartets is even more exceptional. Duke Performances scored this unique coup and presented two concerts by the Emerson String Quartet on the same day. It was a beautiful evening: not a cloud in the ceiling and perfect weather for the nightcap at Duke University’s Reynolds Auditorium.

Although the Emerson Quartet does not shy away from contemporary music, and has even co-commissioned the new quartet by Bright Sheng that was played this evening, they are for the most part an ensemble that sticks close to the classics. This concert, and the afternoon one, was programmed in the traditional manner of the new work sandwiched between two familiar, well-loved and “safe” ones.

For those of you who have not had the opportunity see this quartet in person, they are known for the performance practice of having the three shoulder-launched players standing while cellist David Finckel remains seated on a slightly elevated platform. Violinists Philip Setzer and Eugene Drucker alternate first and second violin duties and are joined by the upright violist Lawrence Sutton. 

They began with the second of the six so-called Sun Quartets (Op.20/2)composed by Haydn, generally given credit for, if not actually inventing the string quartet, then certainly codifying it into its present form. Like many of Haydn’s works, beneath the seemingly surface simplicity, there is an astounding and complex variety of moods and opportunities for interpretation. This is when true musicianship is at its greatest test, and the Emerson Quartet showed that their matinee had no effect on their stamina or focus,
exhibiting equal and appropriate measures of playfulness and gravitas.

Like the “Russian five” or “French six,” there needs to be some sort of nickname applied to a remarkable crop of young Chinese composers, one of whom is Bright Sheng. His fifth string quartet, in one movement, was written for the Emerson Quartet and had its birth only last summer. Subtitled “The Miraculous,” it pays homage to Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin Suite and also alludes to the virtuosity and musicianship of the individual members and the Emerson Quartet as an ensemble. Almost traditional in its harmonic language and string techniques, there is a feeling of a melding of old/new and east/west. Prolonged pizzicatti passages alternate with rapid, slurred, seamless lines. It was fun to imagine the early rehearsals that took place upon receipt of the final manuscript of this demanding and satisfying work.

In personal relationships the idea of an emotional roller coaster is generally a negative trait. Not so in music, and Beethoven can be the wildest and widest ride around. The third of his middle period “Razumovsky” string quartets in the user-friendly key of C major is a technical and interpretive challenge that soothes, excites, and enrages the listener — sometimes simultaneously. A typical slow, nebulous key-center introduction leads to a spiky rhythmic motif that propels the remainder of the first movement. The Emersons somehow managed to combine tightness with flexibility and they got everyone’s motor running. This slowed down without loss of momentum in the exquisite andante movement which exudes mystery and loss. The final movement is a fugal tour de force that is comparable to a netless walk across two skyscrapers. The viola starts with the soft, but insanely fast subject and is taken up by the second violin. Cellist Finckel apparently didn’t think it was quite fast enough and with a noticeable sardonic grin, ratcheted up the tempo at least ten metronome clicks when it got to him. This was certainly intentional and we were off on a musical sprint that didn’t seem possible except for the fact that we were all witnessing it happen. Despite a thunderous reception at the conclusion, even rowdy by chamber music audience standards, we were unable to coax an encore.

It was gratifying to hear a tour-weary group display such remarkable energy, focus and commitment to the spirit of these great compositions even after four hours of playing.