Four-wheel drive

By Lawrence Cosentino

Emerson String Quartet burns with artistry and energy

Breaking news! Security alert at La Guardia Airport.

No, wait — it’s only cellist David Finckel of the Emerson String Quartet, getting worked up about one of Beethoven’s late string quartets.

“It’s about life itself, the universe, the earth and stars,” raved the animated man at the US Air Shuttle terminal with a suspiciously large bundle on his back. “It encompasses everything in four gigantic movements.”

Finckel paced the terminal Sunday while on the phone to Lansing, waiting to board a plane to Washington. His cello was strapped behind him, the better to gesticulate about the big climax to the Emerson Quartet’s visit to the Wharton Center on Thursday, Jan. 21.

“It has probably every facet of human experience you can imagine, from drinking songs to praying to wildness and also majesty and grandeur, mysticism — oh my gosh, it’s got everything.”

When some high-end string quartets come to town — we won’t name names — it’s a bit like a visit from Aunt Abigail. You pay your respects, but the ratio of pleasure to duty isn’t as high as you’d like.

Not so with the New York-based Emersons. Oh, respect them if you must. Time Magazine dubbed them “the world’s greatest string quartet” and they have a 34-year career and a shelf full of Grammys to their credit. (The quartet formed in America’s bicentennial year of 1976, and is named after national philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson.) But far from settling into eminence, the Emersons still burn with a youthful intelligence, joy and sense of adventure.

Finckel, the one with the devilish goatee, stopped to chat on a tour that will take the quartet from New Jersey to Paris to MSU’s Wharton Center.

“I’m very observant when I’m at other concerts,” he said. “I’m well aware of the fact that especially in chamber music, because it’s so demanding and so difficult, the energy of a group can turn inward on itself.”

Finckel said that’s an understandable but fatal mistake. “You can become so involved in what you’re doing, and the intricacy of it, that somehow the energy stays within the ensemble.”

By contrast, Emerson audiences get so much input they tend to dehydrate from gaping, drooling and forgetting to blink.

“I like to play for people,” Finckel said.

What is more, the quartet connects without amplification, team-ups with Elvis Costello, smeary jazz transcriptions, leather pants or any of the other things hip-hunting quartets like Kronos go for.

“Every artist has got to answer his own phone,” Finckel said, diplomatically. “That phone hasn’t rung for us yet.”

But Finckel was quick to point out Emerson firsts like a one-night odyssey through all six of Bela Bartok’s quartets and an innovative theater-music piece based on the tragic life of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. The quartet is also known for traversing the repertoire’s most monumental cycles, including all the quartets of Beethoven, Bartok, and Shostakovich.

“We’ve done our share of ground-breaking,” Finckel said. “But it has to mean something to us.”

The big cycles are rewarding but don’t come easy.

“You shouldn’t hack them all out just to do it,” Finckel said. “You should feel that you’re going to play them all better. It takes a lot of concentration.”

Between big mountain ranges — another complete Shostakovich cycle is coming soon to Lincoln Center — the Emersons dally in the valley of variety.

Next Thursday’s concert at Wharton will start out smoothly enough, with an early Schubert quartet. “It’s very elegant, innocent, beautiful, pristine,” Finckel enthused, piling up a major chord of adjectives. “It was written before he got all messed up and sick and terribly lonely.”

The tone will change drastically with “Intimate Letters” by Czech composer Leos Janacek, which Finckel called “as “un-innocent as you can get.”

“He was an old man, and he had become infatuated with this younger woman and was carrying on this affair, mostly in his head,” he explained. “It’s filled with all kinds of neurotic, obsessive passages and coded messages.”

For the Emersons, no night is complete without bringing down the hammer, and Beethoven’s Opus 127 will take care of that.

Beethoven draws a core sample of human experience, from gutter to heavens, that reminds Finckel of Shakespeare. “The two giants,” he said. “They stand together, at least in my book. Hardly anyone comes close.”

Emerson String Quartet

Thursday, Jan. 21 Wharton Center Great Hall $35 WHARTON