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Music review: The Emerson Quartet and James Galway open 'Aspects of Ades'

March 15, 2011 |  3:15 pm

One aspect of Thomas Adès is trickster. The composer's music makes sense in the way that genuine surprise, not silly clowning around, makes sense.

You never know what to expect from a new Adès piece, never know what to expect from one movement to the next and sometimes not from one phrase to the next. But a nanosecond later it all makes so much sense that, in retrospect, the surprise is that you were surprised in the first place.

Those trickster qualities are certainly present in Adès’ charismatic new string quartet, “The Four Quarters,” which the Emerson String Quartet performed Monday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall two days after the ensemble had given the piece its world premiere at Carnegie Hall in New York. The Disney concert was the opening of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “Aspects of Adès” Festival.

The main body of that festival will be four programs in the first nine days of April. Adès, as conductor and pianist, will present his music along with music by 20th century giants who have influenced him (Stravinsky, Messiaen, Ligeti and Conlon Nancarrow), and he will premiere works he has commissioned for the occasion (by Franciso Coll and Gerald Barry).

Monday's Emerson program, a kind of prologue, was the one in the festival that Adès didn’t devise himself. Put together by the Emersons, it added its own little surprise for trickster Tom -- the presence of a famous flutist with a bent for silly clowning around.

James Galway stands out. He is a flamboyant dresser -– patterned regal jacket and flowery vest on Monday. He wields a gold flute and wipes it with a large handkerchief, which he ostentatiously drapes around his music stand.  He also, this evening, draped his flowery, golden sound ostentatiously around Mozart’s D-Major Flute Quartet; the Debussy flute solo “Syrinx”; and Arthur Foote’s “A Night Piece,” early 20th century American music that clings to the dying embers of European Romanticism.

These were performances of a trickster squirming in bonds of forced tastefulness, kept on the foursquare by a plush, purposeful string quartet not known for a sense of humor. Smiles were, however, part of an encore, when Galway raced his bemused partners through a Bach Badinerie (from the Second Orchestral Suite) and won. He swaggered off the stage to the roars of the crowd, carrying his flute like a toreador with his lance.

Perhaps there was a meaningful Emersonian rationale for surrounding Adès’ “Four Quarters” with Galway. In this quartet, bluster and insecurity magically and magisterially commingle.  The four movements are titled “Nightfalls,” “Morning Dew,” “Days” and “The Twenty-fifth Hour.” The clock ticks, the world turns.

The Emersons are celebrated for their Bártok, and that is the realm in which Adès begins. “Nightfalls” is night music that enters into mysterious realms of string quartet realms, like those of late Beethoven. Raindrops fall next in the pizzicato. Day progresses with a rhythmic groove.

The clocks go crazy at the 25th hour. That’s where a pulse of 25 goes against one of 16. A trickster has thrown all the switches at once, and meters merrily collide. They do so in a dance, like one of elementary particles. Energy is released in quantity. Adès' invention, his humor and his inscrutability are to be marveled at.

The Emersons (violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violist Lawrence Dutton and cellist David Finckel) did not show the sweat this kind of counting requires. Instead, they played new music with the grace and sophistication and nuance of deeply absorbed old music.

They ended the program with Debussy’s Quartet sounding as if a single voice, thickened and polished to perfection. There are other ways to make Debussy seem fresher and more French, maybe even a bit trickier. But after Galway’s and Adès’ dissimilar flights of fancy, a little grace (make that a lot of grace) was not displeasing.

[For the record 4:33 p.m.: An earlier verison of this review misspelled Gerald Barry and Philip Setzer.]


Thomas Adès in all his aspects

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Flutist James Galway and violinist Eugene Drucker of the Emerson String Quartet at Walt Disney Concert Hall Monday night. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times.