The Borromeo and Emerson String Quartets

After its triumphant traversal of the complete Béla Bartók string quartets at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the Borromeo Quartet was back for a free 20th- and 21st-century program at Jordan Hall, leading off with an accomplished recent piece by the 24-year-old Egyptian composer Mohammed Fairuz, Lamentation and Satire, whose two connected movements expressed those contrasting sentiments and made them seem inextricable. Gunther Schuller, one of Fairuz's mentors, followed: his skittery and tremulous String Quartet No. 4 (2002), almost improvisatory and heartbreakingly eloquent. (The Borromeos are recording all the Schuller quartets.) Then Bartók's big Fourth Quartet, in a performance that — partly because the acoustics in Jordan Hall are so much richer and have so much more depth — seemed even stronger, more detailed, more shapely, more vibrant than the one at the Gardner. These extraordinary musicians live inside the music they play.

Which brings me to the Emerson String Quartet, the admirable ensemble whose Celebrity Series recital last Friday offered a program with a tragic-comic cast that guaranteed a smaller house than an all-Beethoven program would have brought in: Charles Ives's lively, early First Quartet (From the Salvation Army), Leos Janácek's Kreutzer Sonata Quartet (named after Tolstoy's great story), and Dmitri Shostakovich's wrenching Quartet No. 9, plus a bonbon, Samuel Barber's famous 1936 Adagio from his Opus 11 Quartet. The Emersons have a devoted following, and they deserve it. But what is it about these extremely musical players that leaves me wanting more?

The Borromeos always have me on the edge of my chair with their propulsive, suspenseful phrasing. The Emersons seem less engaged. Each phrase has a certain eloquence, yet it all goes by like a slide show, without quite taking you anywhere. When Lawrence Dutton's viola string broke in the middle of the giddy Shostakovich Scherzo, it didn't really matter that the performance had to stop, even though the five movements are supposed to be played without pause. Barber's lyrical outpouring ought to sweep you along — yet after the intense climax, the music went on for a few more bars and then ended. Where was the tenderness? The heartstopping beauty? It was as if the musicians were listening from outside rather than burning from within. Does their policy of playing standing up (except for the cellist, of course) and alternating first violinists from piece to piece add to a certain distancing? There's never anything schlocky or dishonest, no effect merely for the sake of effect. It's just that I always feel there's something missing.

The one encore — a quartet arrangement of a very pretty Dvorák song — had the sweetest playing of the evening.

Dohnányi delivered alert rhythms, pungent winds and brass, and silk from the divided BSO violins. The high point was 44-year-old German violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann in the Martinu. His consistently pure, round, and beautifully focused tone, even in Martinu's most rhythmically unstable music but especially in passages of nostalgic lyricism (sometimes at war with bellicose brasses), made me wonder where I'd heard playing like that before. Zimmermann's program bio held the answer: he performs on a 1711 Stradivarius that once belonged to the great Fritz Kreisler, and it's the natural sweetness and rhythmic life of Kreisler's classic recordings that Zimmermann's staggering but unfussy virtuosity brought to mind.

By the way, WGBH's acquisition of "all-classical" WCRB has not without incident. I received the following e-mail from a frustrated radio listener to a live BSO concert: "The pilot Friday broadcast on WCRB omitted the opening of the Martinu concerto in favor of a canned list of sponsors followed by a weather report(!)" Some wrinkles still need to be ironed out.

The news from across the river is that at historic Agassiz Theater, Harvard has produced its first Yiddish operetta, Shulamis, or The Daughter of Jerusalem, which was written by "the father of the Yiddish Theater," Avrom Goldfaden, and first produced in Russia in 1882. I gather it has been performed continually around the world, though this seems to have been the first version with spoken dialogue in English — the original rhymed libretto has been translated into couplets by librettist, Yiddish scholar, and retired CUNY professor Nahma Sandrow.

The musical score has a more complicated history. In the handsomely produced program book (which includes a dozen color photographs of related documents — playbills, posters, scores — from Harvard's Yiddish Theater collection), Zalmen Mlotek, the "musical curator" (and an artistic director of New York's Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre, this country's only professional Yiddish-theater company), writes about the process of assembling a workable edition, since Goldfaden himself seems never to have written down his own score. Directors Debra Caplan (a Harvard PhD candidate in Yiddish literature, with two previous Yiddish theater pieces in her CV) and Cecilia Raker (class of 2011, and a directing intern at Shakespeare & Company last summer) went to the best sources for a performing version.
The score is a bewitching combination of Eastern European melancholy, Bellini, and musical-comedy numbers almost out of Fiddler on the Roof. There's a haunting lullaby ("Raisins and Almonds"), a memorable vow-of-love duet, and several rousing and/or touching folk-like ensembles — all thoroughly worth hearing. The book is another matter. It's a sentimental and melodramatic tale, with comic interludes, about a Jewish maiden from Bethlehem who gets lost in the desert and falls into a well and then falls in love with her handsome rescuer. When he abandons her for a big-city woman in Jerusalem, she pretends to go mad, and he's punished by having both his infant children die. The lovers are finally reunited, and they all live happily ever after (except for the previous wife). I suspect this can't work without some knowing nod to 19th-century theatrical style.

My heart goes out to the directors in their effort to assemble a student cast of actors and singers who were willing to learn Yiddish. For the title role, they found Texan soprano Grace Field, an attractive young professional with a high-ranging, flute-like, very pretty voice when she was singing on pitch (which was most of the time). Her acting, however, was primitive, her diction was muddy (her Yiddish may be better than her English), and her cue pick-ups were so slow, they added considerable dead time. (I attended the third performance, and it ran an unconscionable three hours.) The stock, unsophisticated blocking was no asset. The rest of the cast, a group of game amateurs, seemed to relish what they were doing, but audibility, comprehensibility, and singing in tune were not among their virtues. Russian conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya, a scholarship student in conducting at Boston University and an assistant conductor of the Zamir Chorale, probably did as well as she could with the student orchestra. Choreographer Gabrielle Orcha and three other members of her professional dance company were the expressionistic dancers, but their modern style (a friend called it "choreography by Jules Feiffer") seemed anachronistic.
This was my first experience of a Yiddish operetta, and I was so taken with the music, I wanted to hear more. In every sense.

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