There was a double celebration at Baird Auditorium Saturday evening. The Grammy-winning Emerson String Quartet received the James Smithson Medal for distinguished achievement in the arts, and the Smithsonian's Resident Associate Program observed its silver anniversary. To mark the occasion, the Emerson offered an all-American program of works by Charles Ives, Samuel Barber, Elliott Carter and Paul Epstein in which the maverick spirit dominated.
Ives's String Quartets No. 1, "A Revival Meeting," and No. 2 began and ended the concert. With all four movements named for church service sections, the Ives First takes familiar hymn tunes and progressively fractures them rhythmically and harmonically. The Emerson gave as lucid an account as one could ask for.
Ives himself described No. 2 as a string quartet "for four men -- who converse, discuss, argue, fight, shake hands, shut up -- then walk up the mountainside to view the firmament." As Eugene Drucker explained, the second violin in the quartet's second movement portrays a music critic, a conservative lout who unleashes a sweet cadenza quickly shouted down by his cronies, then breaks into Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" when tempers fly. Drucker played the part straight-faced, but the audience couldn't suppress its laughter.
Barber's String Quartet, Op. 11, and Carter's "Elegy" contrasted nicely with the Ives, thanks to precise, richly textured readings. The Washington premiere of Epstein's "Dream Sonata, or I Hear America Playing the Violin," featuring Philip Setzer accompanied by Epstein on piano, admirably followed the Ives anything-goes credo via ragtime, country, jazz and vaudevillian references. The finale's dream-within-a-dream sequence, taking off from Ives's "Concord" Sonata, which itself quotes Beethoven and various hymns, became a delirious masquerade whose underlying message was that all music is created equal.