Are string quartets meant to stand?

emerson quartet
[Photo courtesy Chamber Music Northwest]

I’ve been ruminating about my experience of watching the Emerson Quartet perform at Carnegie Hall a week ago today. I was telling a friend about the concert, and happened to note to her that the quartet now performs standing up (with the exception of cellist David Finckel, who sits on an elevated platform). She was quite dumbfounded that they had continued with the experiment. I had heard that they were performing this way, but did not know why or for how long they would do so. Lately, I’ve noticed that some younger quartets (those still in music school or just out) have taken up this manner of performing.

My question is this: are quartets meant to perform standing up? Is it still chamber music?

In the large-scale environment of Carnegie Hall, it seemed like a pretty smart thing to do. The stage and auditorium are very large (and there was no shell to help sound project out into the hall rather than going all the way back to the rear of the stage) and standing might help to engender a more soloistic style of playing and more freedom of motion. However, the foursome were remarkably static in their performance style, with a minimum of motion as they played (with the exception of violist Larry Dutton, who did some major emoting in his beautifully heartfelt solos in the Shostakovich 15th Quartet).

For most smaller venues, however, I think it would be overkill. I see quartet playing as an intimate venture. At its best it should feel like a bridge match held in someone’s living room, but with several hundred onlookers. As an audience member, attending a quartet concert should almost feel voyeuristic – like you’re seeing something that was clearly meant to be private. Having the ensemble seated helps to reinforce this feeling – standing seems to me to expand the experience too much, but that may very well be the Emersons’ intent. In any event, bravo to them for at least trying something different.

UPDATE: read another opinion here.

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