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Legacies: Past, Present, and Future

January 29, 2023
Emerson String Quartet

The Chamber Music Society’s 2023–24 season, just announced, centers on the theme of Legacy.

This word, which in today’s corporate-speak has become a euphemism for “outdated” (as in “a legacy system”), originally comes from a Latin word that means “ambassador” or “envoy” (think “legate.”) Related to the ideas of a commission or an authoritative charge with responsibility, “legacy” eventually came to mean a bequest, and it is with this sense of a valuable tradition passed down, as well as the sense of a charge, that we refer to our theme.

This season features the final chapters for two eminent chamber ensembles; the Emerson String Quartet and the Orion String Quartet—both among the finest of their generation and long associated with CMS—will be giving their final public performances from the Alice Tully Hall stage. These concerts are historic moments not to be missed, and, in fact, feature a notable overlap in repertoire: Beethoven’s Op. 131 and the “Grosse Fugue,” Op. 133. It is a rare chance to hear the same monumental music performed by two different groups on opposite ends of the same season. Also to be performed by the Emerson is Schubert’s String Quintet, D. 956, for which they will be joined by cellist David Finckel, a longtime member of the quartet and current Co-Artistic Director of CMS—making this program simultaneously a farewell and a reunion. On the Orion’s final concert, in addition to the Beethoven, there is another late work by Schubert, one that pushed the string quartet genre into new territory: the G-major Quartet, D. 887.

When groups like the Emerson and Orion, who have had such storied careers, bid farewell to public performance, one may be left to wonder who, if anyone, will fill the gap left by their absence. Fortunately, our season’s theme of Legacy looks not only to the past, but also to the future; during the Winter Festival, four of today’s most compelling string quartets will grace the stage at Alice Tully Hall, playing a wide range of repertoire that demonstrates their commitment to ensuring great music is heard anew. All four—the Calidore String Quartet, the Schumann Quartet, the Quartetto di Cremona, and the Escher String Quartet—have been lauded for their insightful, powerful performances and recordings, and represent the future of that most quintessential of chamber music genres.

Broadening expectations around chamber music involves not only playing works that are seldom programmed, but also including instrumentations that may not immediately spring to mind when one thinks of “chamber music.”

While the six quartets mentioned above will be performing mainly classics of the repertoire, other programs during the season will feature music by under-performed composers—George Walker, Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn, Louise Farrenc, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and Delphine von Schauroth, to name only a few. Additionally, the season includes music by innovative living composers such as John Corigliano, William Bolcom, and Kaija Saariaho, as well as premieres by Libby Larsen, Todd Cochran, Jessie Montgomery, and Wang Jie.

In the spirit of expanding the canon, our Baroque Festival in December 2023 highlights the vast, and all-too-often underexplored, potential of this period in music history. By performing less-familiar pieces alongside the foundational works of Bach (no doubt, we continue our holiday tradition of the complete Brandenburg Concertos, and will also perform an arrangement of The Art of the Fugue for string quartet and wind quintet), CMS demonstrates how seemingly limitless is the world of Baroque music with important works by Rameau, Rebel, Couperin, and others.

Broadening expectations around chamber music involves not only playing works that are seldom programmed, but also including instrumentations that may not immediately spring to mind when one thinks of “chamber music.” Audiences will find familiar names (Stravinsky, Bartók, Tan Dun) connected to works employing sizeable percussion batteries. And lest “chamber music” as a genre be constrained in our imaginations solely to familiar combos like the string quartet and piano trio, CMS will also feature vocal chamber music, with pieces for voice and various instruments by Rachmaninov, Saint-Saëns, Fauré, Ravel, and George Crumb.

As we look forward to the new season, we at CMS hope you will join us as we continue to present the best of chamber music, both reinvigorating our great tradition and making way for the next and future generations of composers and performers.

John Sherer is Editorial Manager at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.