By Thomas May
The members of the Emerson Quartet discuss the secrets behind their trailblazing success, their legacy, and what the future holds
The Emerson Quartet has been a dominant fixture in the chamber-music scene for so long now that it takes a considerable leap of imagination to picture what it was like for the ensemble 40 years ago, at the beginning of their adventure. The world was a vastly different place, of course, when they embarked on that debut season in 1976—though the sense of one crisis overlapping the next remains eerily familiar. The Watergate scandal still painfully recent, the nation faced its first election since Richard Nixon’s resignation, while the Fall of Saigon the previous year had just brought the bitter conflict in Vietnam to its traumatic end.
Against this backdrop of domestic and international anxieties, the American bicentennial prompted thoughts of more hopeful times. “We chose our name because we liked what Ralph Waldo Emerson stood for,” recalls Eugene Drucker, who, with fellow violinist Philip Setzer, cofounded the Emerson String Quartet. Preferring to steer clear of “a politician or statesman,” they hit upon the iconic American essayist and thinker, Drucker says, “because we knew he was a great idealist and had a profound effect on many people in the arts, and also espoused a lot of good social ideas.”
At the time, there were few fulltime string quartets on the scene—whether as models or competitors. Setzer singles out the Juilliard, Guarneri, Cleveland, and Tokyo—”which was a little closer to our age” —noting that the situation today is much more competitive for young ensembles trying to make their mark. “But you also have more opportunities now. People talk about classical music as dying, and yet you see this burst of young musicians.”
It’s a renaissance of quartet playing that the Emersons in many ways helped trigger.
That really put the foursome on the map was their bold programming of all six Bartok quartets in one marathon concert at Alice Tully Hall in March 1981—in homage to the centenary of the composer’s birth. “It seemed a crazy idea and everyone thought it wouldn’t work,” recalls Setzer, “but it became one of those magical evenings when people got more and more into it.”
We shared completely similar opinions on what was good playing and what was bad playing. I don’t think that happens as often anymore.
The Juilliard Quartet, whose founding member, violinist Robert Mann, was a shaping influence on the Emersons, had introduced Bartok’s great 20th-century cycle to American audiences, but live performances of the whole set tended to divvy them up over two concerts, in non-chronological order. The effect is very different when they are presented in chronological order, notes Drucker. “We had to prepare very carefully, almost like athletes. It requires not only stamina, but being able to keep all those pieces in top shape in our fingers at one time.”
The Emersons’ triumph with Bartok heralded future successes with cycles of Beethoven and Shostakovich—interpretations impelled by electrifying energy but also deeply felt, fusing the strengths of their two major American quartet models: the Juilliard and Guarneri quartets. The Emerson Quartet’s highly acclaimed, multiple-award-winning accounts of these repertoire bedrocks became definitive for a new generation discovering the joys of chamber music in the digital era.
“A lot of career success is about timing,” says David Finckel, the ensemble’s cellist until his departure in 2013 for other adventures. “We were at the right place at the right time in our career in 1983, when digital recording really began. Very soon after that Deutsche Grammophon wanted to have new recordings of the standard literature in the digital format. They selected us as the quartet for their label, which was a huge break for us because it opened up a worldwide recording and radio audience and also the whole European continent.”
The Emersons in turn became game changers for several new waves of quartet players by providing a fresh model of success. Welsh-born cellist Paul Watkins, who became Finckel’s replacement, was only 6 years old when the Emersons launched their first season.
“The quartets I grew up listening to were the recordings by the Quartetto Italiano, which is a very different beast. I can remember quite specifically the first thing I heard by the Emersons was their Bartok box. That was absolutely astonishing and a real talking point among musicians of my generation in the early 1990s.”
Ryan Meehan, who plays violin with the Calidore Quartet, summarizes what his ensemble has gained from being mentored by the Emersons during a recently concluded three-year residency at Stony Brook University: “We’ve all grown up listening to the Emerson recordings our whole lives. As teachers, they know how to allow you to retain your own voice and style and yet guide you in learning the rep. And because they are still performing, they have a perspective that other mentors lack who are not performing today.”
Drucker and Setzer met as fellow newbies at Juilliard in the 1969–70 academic year. One of their academic requirements was to play in a student quartet, and though they began in separate ensembles, the two eventually discovered they shared ideas about music making. Which isn’t surprising, since their fathers had both been professional violinists. (Drucker senior played with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and the Busch Quartet, while Setzer’s dad was part of the Cleveland Orchestra.)
Having the two violinists alternate in the first-chair position was a feature of many student groups, Setzer points out, but as a professional quartet the Emersons decided to continue the practice, which became a trademark. “It wasn’t just that we both wanted to play first violin: Gene and I really enjoy playing first and second violin. It’s important for violinists to keep sharpening both skills—the lead actor and the
supporting role as well.”
In the Emersons’ inaugural season, their formation included violist Guillermo Figueroa and cellist Eric Wilson. By the following year, Lawrence Dutton had replaced Figueroa, and David Finckel joined as cellist in 1979, establishing the lineup that persisted unchanged for 34 years—until Finckel’s replacement by Paul Watkins in 2013.
The music is always greater than you can possibly be, so there’s a built-in challenge. If you ever reach a level that you think is good enough, you should just stop and not play anymore.
Finckel attributes this remarkable stability in part to a shared aesthetic vision: “We were and still are firmly rooted in the great 19th- and early-20th-century tradition of string playing that found its epitome in the expressive playing of Heifetz and Kreisler, and the incomparable cello playing of my teacher, Rostropovich.”
Setzer and Drucker both emphasize that they absorbed this tradition from Oscar Shumsky, a key mentor at Juilliard. Even to this day, notes Paul Watkins, “rarely a rehearsal goes by without some reference to Shumsky. That’s particularly lovely for me, since I was struck by his work when I was growing up in the UK and got to hear several of his performances at a later period in his career.”
“We shared completely similar opinions on what was good playing and what was bad playing,” Finckel remarks. “I don’t think that happens as often anymore.”
“I’m proud of the fact that we’ve been able to get along for so long,” says violist Dutton.
“The beauty of it is that there’s this wonderful tradition. Just as the Guarneri came out of the Budapest Quartet and the
Juilliard came out of the Kolsch, we came out of the Guarneri and Juilliard. And we’ve passed this model on to younger generations. This repertoire is made to last and to be passed on.”
ut the practical realities of negotiating among four entirely separate egos demand more than a set of noble ideals about playing style. What about the friction that’s inevitably generated in rehearsal, or from the stress of being on the road? “It’s important to try different things rather than discussing it ahead of time,” Setzer says. “Sometimes it is very hard to take and give criticism in a constructive way. We laugh and tease each other a lot. Probably the hardest part of what we do is all the traveling and trying to balance that with our families and friends.”
“There will always be bumps in the road,” according to Drucker, “especially in those first few years, when you’re not getting a huge amount of recognition.” A key bit of advice he offers younger players is “to not let yourself be thrown off balance by differences in style of playing or personality. You can be aware of those differences, but you have to keep the larger goal in mind and learn
to value what the differences contribute.”
Finckel believes that “you can’t commercialize chamber music very easily—there are no glamorous conductors to put up on a poster. But what has attracted people to chamber music is precisely that. It’s something that has an immediate value that is right on the surface.” He adds that the tradition they absorbed from mentors and try to pass on involves “not only the musical but the social skills that go into chamber music.”
Another secret to their longevity, paradoxically, is based on an unrelenting sense of frustration—of never quite reaching the goal. Setzer describes this as “always being dissatisfied with what we do, but usually in a good way. The music is always greater than you can possibly be, so there’s a built-in challenge. If you ever reach a level that you think is good enough, you should just stop and not play anymore.” But along with that dissatisfaction, all of the longterm Emersons share a sense of pride about such accomplishments as their Bartok, Beethoven, and Shostakovich cycles. Playing Mozart’s “Haydn” quartets and Beethoven quartets in particular, recalls Finckel, “was an experience of musical ecstasy I don’t think you can find outside the string quartet in chamber music. The way Beethoven’s quartets trace his life and artistic development is a human and cosmic journey that is somehow comparable to life itself: the youthful, aggressive, optimistic beginning, maturity and crisis, and then transcendence.”
Another accomplishment they single out is The Noise of Time, a collaborative theater project with the British company Complicite and director Simon McBurney, based on the life and music of Shostakovich, that had an international run in several capitals. “This was territory that had never been tried before,” says Setzer, “very rewarding and moving.” So much so that, at the climax of this anniversary season, the ensemble is planning a new Shostakovich project, The Black Monk, which they will premiere next June at the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival, where Paul Watkins also serves as artistic director. Setzer, who is the mastermind of the Emersons’ thoughtful programming ideas, explains that this involves a Chekhov story Shostakovich long wanted to make into an opera but never completed, though some of the intended music found its way into his string quartets. “We’re always looking at new things—and trying to not just keep playing the same couple of programs. It’s important to always be challenging ourselves and coming up with new ideas and rep.” In fact, the Emersons recently opened their anniversary season with the world premiere of a piece they commissioned from English composer Mark-Anthony
Turnage. “It makes a nice full circle of my life,” says Watkins.
“Since he wrote a Cello Concerto for the BBC Symphony that I played with the Nash Ensemble [which Watkins conducts], I’ve performed much of his music. When he knew that I was in the Emersons, he was keen to do this.”
The remarkably smooth transition to the new lineup with Watkins is further evidence of the ensemble’s successful modus operandi. Along with its longstanding principles, a sense of flexibility keeps the group energized and ready for the next challenge. “I never felt that I had to particularly change my style to get to play with them,” notes Watkins. “That’s the mark of the chamber musicians they are. They are still incredibly flexible at this stage in their career, very open to new ideas of playing.”
And that comes down to the delicate balance between respect for tradition and hunger for innovation. Finckel believes that chamber music is the ideal medium to achieve this balance, because the music “is not something that happens to you, it’s something you do. You need to engage with the music. And once you do, you become part of a relationship that builds between an audience and an ensemble of players communicating between themselves without a conductor. The audience becomes part of that circle and is just as important to the players.”