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2020 ‘Beethoven Festival’ Brings All 16 Quartets To Louisville

Doug Fenn
The Emerson String Quartet in a performance at Comstock Hall in 2018

It’s Beethoven’s birthday! And throughout 2020 musical groups from high school bands to symphony orchestras will be playing the composer’s most famous works — saluting the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven in Bonn, Germany in 1770. One of the most noteworthy of the tributes will unfold in Kentucky, where the Chamber Music Society of Louisville has booked the renowned Emerson String Quartet to perform the entire “cycle” of 16 Beethoven String Quartets.

It’s no small endeavor. To present all 16 Beethoven quartets will require six concerts, which the Society has scheduled for the spring and fall of 2020 in Comstock Hall at the University of Louisville. The first two concerts of the Beethoven Festival are on Feb. 8 and 9.

But wait a minute. String quartets?

Certainly other Beethoven works are more familiar. Almost everyone recognizes the bold opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony: Ba-ba-ba BOM. (G-G-G  E-flat, if you’re scoring at home.) Or maybe the lonely piano beauty of the “Moonlight Sonata.” Well, those Beethoven hits are certain to be well-covered in many places by many groups and soloists. But in the rarified air of classical music, the Beethoven string quartets — written for two violins, a viola and a cello — remain as revered as the master’s mighty symphonies, cast for 90-piece orchestras. Maybe it’s a bit like comparing a Patek Philippe Swiss watch to London’s Big Ben — both something special in time.

As is the Emerson String Quartet. The New York-based Emerson is arguably — and chamber music fans do argue about such things — the number one string quartet in the world. It sells the most records, has won the most Grammy Awards, and probably visits more international music capitals every season than any quartet.

Plus, says Chamber Music Society president Cecilia Huerta-Lauf, the Emerson has been playing and performing the Beethoven quartets for its entire history, dating back to the players’ college days when the group was formed. The Emerson’s boxed CD set of all 16 Beethoven quartets on the elite Deutsche Grammophon label is considered a standard of Beethoven interpretation.

“So it’s not only presenting all of Beethoven, but performed by people who have been studying the quartets for years and years,” says Huerta-Lauf. “A comparison might be that players in an orchestra have certainly played all nine Beethoven symphonies, but they’ve learned them at different points in their lives, with different groups and conductors. This is a group that has done it together for 40 years.”

Emerson violist Lawrence Dutton well recalls the first time the group played all the Beethovens at the Vermont Music Festival.

“This is ancient history here, but it was the summer of 1980 in Vermont, and our first manager, Melvin Kaplan, said it was something we ought to do, something a great group would do,” Dutton said. “And you know, I still remember it was just frightening to play those pieces. They are, for us, the crowning achievement of all string quartets. There’s no other body of work that compares.”

And not simply by degree of beauty, or difficulty to perform. The Beethoven quartets go where no other chamber music had gone before.

Letting His Genius Take Flight

Beethoven was well along in his career in Vienna when he penned his first quartets, at about the same time he was writing his first symphonies, around 1800-1803. And like his first two symphonies, Beethoven’s first quartets are composed within classical musical styles developed and refined by Haydn and Mozart.

Then Beethoven let his genius take flight. Just as the composer’s third symphony “Eroica” transformed music forever, so too did his quartets evolve, becoming bolder and more daring.

“It’s amazing to hear how Beethoven took it from Haydn and Mozart and completely transformed the medium,” Dutton said.

The world was changing before Beethoven’s eyes. He was born about the time of the American Revolution, grew to be a young man through the French Revolution, and reached the height of his success in the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. Europe was finding its way from monarchy to democracy, with terrible wars, but wonderful scientific and artistic advances. And Ludwig van Beethoven took a wide-world view of it all.

The Emerson will not program the quartets in strict chronological order, but offer concerts that pair the composer’s early quartets with middle years, and middle with late. So even if attending just one of the six concerts, a listener will be able to hear changes.

And it’s quite a jump, says Huerta-Lauf.

“The composers before him were generally court composers, hired to write music to be performed for counts and countesses,” she explained. “Beethoven was commissioned, too, but he got to the point he was saying, ‘You guys are just going to have to listen to what I’m writing, and what I’m thinking — and you’re just going to have to take it.’ ”

In that context, the chamber president says her favorite quartet is Beethoven’s very last, his 16th, written in the final months of his life in 1827. “It’s just this rough, gruff thing, full of tonality, you couldn’t believe it is Beethoven.”

Sweep The Theater, Print The Programs

This is the 82nd season for the Chamber of Music Society of Louisville, founded in 1938 by many of the same music lovers who had founded the Louisville Orchestra the year before. It’s always been an all-volunteer group, kind of like a club, offering public concerts at the University of Louisville.

What really makes the thing go is the enthusiasm of its members. In the early days it was Fanny Brandeis, Emilie Smith and pals, who would sweep out the old Playhouse theater, print the programs and occasionally host visiting performers in their homes — with a sparkling reception included, of course. Brandeis was the niece of Justice Louis Brandeis. Smith and her husband lived in Oldham County, with the Louisville and Nashville railroad running along the edge of their farm. When the society had special guest performers coming to town, Smith somehow would get the L&N to make a stop at the farm to let off the celebrity musicians.

From the beginning the Chamber Music Society has enjoyed appearances by the very top stars of the genre.

The season is usually five concerts, with one headlined by a famous quartet. The other concert dates go to up-and-coming groups, in various ensemble combinations, trios, octets, strings, brass — many of which began as up-and-comers coming through Louisville, and became the crème de la crème.

In the early years, the Budapest String Quartet played Louisville every year. The Budapest took refugee status in the United States during World War II, and U of L music professor Gerhard Herz invited the group to play here —  a bond that lasted more than 20 years. When the Budapest retired, the Juilliard String Quartet became the society’s headlining regular. Last November, the Juilliard made its 50th appearance in Louisville. The Emerson has appeared here 14 times, heading into its six Beethoven Festival appearances this year.

With A Little Help From Our Friends

Which brings up the question: How do they do it?

How does a music society that is generally unknown in the city, with no ad agency or press agent to help it sell tickets, manage to bring famous chamber music ensembles to Louisville?

Well, it’s mostly through the contributions of its patrons.

The Beethoven Festival was the idea of longtime Chamber Music Society member Ben Franklin, who made his mark in the science of nuclear air filtration with American Air Filter. Franklin, who passed away in 2018, had been around when the society gave over its 1976 season to the Juilliard String Quartet to present all 16 of the Beethoven quartets, and wished to see that happen again. His favorite group was the Emerson, and Franklin asked the society to program the Beethoven cycle, which he would fund.

“We put a committee together, chaired by Andrew Fleischman, and put everything into motion,” Huerta-Lauf said. “But Ben had gotten sick. We were about to book the Emerson, but checked with Ben one more time: Did he still wish to go through with the plan? Andrew called him and he said, ‘Yes, I do want this to happen. I will write a check and then I am going to the hospital.’ He knew then he was going into hospice and would not see the concerts.”

But he also knew others would. In Franklin’s final days, members of the society visited him. Huerta-Lauf brought her cello and played Bach's Cello Suite No. 1.

Dutton says he and the other Emerson players counted Franklin as a friend.

“Ben would pick us up at the airport, and then he and I would go running,” recalls Dutton. “He was a strong, vigorous guy, and he would have lived longer except for the cancer. But he did live well into his eighties and was a great guy. So we’re remembering him with this event, for sure.”

Tickets for Chamber Music Society concerts are $40; seniors $35; college students $5. There’s also a special plan for families with children who are music students. All concerts are at 3 p.m. in Comstock Hall, in the University of Louisville School of Music, 149 W. Brandeis Ave. Tickets and information: louisvillechambermusic.org, 502-452-9029.

Beethoven Festival concert dates with the Emerson String Quartet are Feb. 8, 9; Mar. 1; Oct. 25; Nov. 21, 22.

Correction: A previous version of this story stated Huerta-Lauf played Beethoven's "Grosse Fugue" for Franklin. It was Bach's Cello Suite No. 1.


Erica Peterson is WFPL's Director of News and Programming.