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Music Review

Galway’s flute and Emerson’s strings combine for quite a show

By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / March 14, 2011

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Most concerts are curated with the aim of an e-pluribus-unum revelation of unexpected affinities. The Emerson String Quartet and Sir James Galway flipped the pattern for their star-summit Celebrity Series program on Friday; one could surmise logical connections, but the experience was more high-minded variety show — swinging from light to dark, from cheer to tragedy and back again.

Galway provided the cheer; the veteran flutist’s gregarious reputation was elegantly reaffirmed for a sold-out Jordan Hall crowd. Passagework in Mozart’s D major Flute Quartet (K. 285) had cut-crystal polish; a solo turn, Claude Debussy’s “Syrinx,’’ manifested cream-rich tone and a final note drawn through an entire palette of colors. Galway’s virtuosity is garrulous, the energy directed outward. The strings merrily deferred: In the Mozart, violinist Eugene Drucker, violist Lawrence Dutton, and cellist David Finckel cushioned the flute with busy, bustling texture.

But the core of the Emerson’s music-making is more inward, a quietly insistent, wiry intensity. Rejoined by violinist Philip Setzer, they shifted into fierce shadows with Dmitri Shostakovich’s C minor Eighth Quartet. It seemed a visitor from another program: It might have built on the melancholy overtones in “Syrinx,’’ but for Galway’s extroverted luxury; and, in a sense, it did wander in, a placeholder for a new quartet by Thomas Adès the group was to premiere in New York the following day. But the performance had terrific, grim flair, expertly projecting Shostakovich’s moods of both quiet and disquiet, the way he sustained them until the unease is palpable. The players refused to let the audience off the hook, to arresting effect.

Galway returned for a Brahmin artifact, Salem-born and Harvard-bred Arthur Foote’s flute- and string quartet “A Night Piece.’’ The nocturne deploys its ruminating Romantic harmonies with well-crafted charm; the performance, though, was not quite grounded, never really settling in. (Also scheduled for New York, it felt a little like another Boston tradition, the out-of-town tryout.) Debussy’s G minor String Quartet, too, intermittently drifted out of focus, particularly in regard to intonation, but when the energy locked in — especially when riding Dutton and Finckel’s rhythmic drive — the music revealed unexpected, convincing burliness.

Encores were generous: The quartet wrapped its wire in silk for the third of Antonin Dvorák’s “Cypresses,’’ then Galway joined in for the “Badinerie’’ from Bach’s B minor Suite, daringly fast and dashingly fizzy. The only connection seemed to be the players’ eagerness to share. That was enough, really.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.

EMERSON STRING QUARTET Sir James Galway, flute Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston

At: Jordan Hall, Friday