Emerson string quartet banner for december 2023

FCM’s Exclusive Sit Down Interview with the Beloved Emerson Quartet

November 30, 2022

Now in its 47th and final season, the internationally celebrated Emerson String Quartet is in the midst of an intercontinental tour, revisiting many of the musicians’ favourite concert locales. Stops include concerts in Vienna, Prague, Frankfurt, Paris, London, Copenhagen, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Vancouver, amongst many others.

The group has made more than 30 recordings, has won nine Grammy Awards (including two for Best Classical Album), an Avery Fischer Prize, and has won Musical America’s “Ensemble of the Year” award. The members have toured ceaselessly since founding the quartet while students at the Juilliard School in New York. So much so, that as students they failed their course in Chamber Music at Juillard because they were absent too often that term – while on tour!

Friends of Chamber Music, with the assistance of volunteer board member Eric Wilson, first brought the Emerson String Quartet for a concert in Vancouver in 1979. Starting with the impressive success of that first evening performance, the Emersons have returned to Vancouver many times, and their final concert here on December 4, 2022, will mark their 32nd appearance for Friends of Chamber Music.

This will be the fourth time that the former Emerson Quartet cellist, Eric Wilson (who teaches at UBC) – not the Eric Wilson who is a Friends board member – will join the quartet for part of their final Vancouver appearance.

Eugene Drucker – violin

gene from emerson quartetCan you share a favourite memory or anecdote from any of your visits to Vancouver?

The very first time we were scheduled to appear in Vancouver, in 1979 (ancient history!), we were supposed to fly in from Salt Lake City, and had enormous flight problems due to a blizzard in Denver, where our flight was originating. We were in touch with Eric Wilson several times during the day; remember, there were no cell phones back then, so it took some effort. When we were finally able to arrive in Seattle, after having been re-routed there, he arranged for a small charter plane to pick us up and fly us over the border. When we landed, we were rushed to the hall, but arrived at least half an hour late.

By that time, many people in the audience had left, because an announcement had been made that we would land half an hour after concert time, when the correct information was that we’d arrive at the hall, not the airport, half an hour late. David Finckel, who had just recently joined the quartet, had a bad cold and his ears were clogged up from flying. We began to play with barely any time to warm up, but apparently made a good enough impression that Eric invited us back. We’ve played for the Friends of Chamber Music in Vancouver almost every year since then and are glad to have made many friends in the music-loving community of your city.

Are there any unique aspects to playing in Vancouver?

We sense that it is a sophisticated audience with years of experience listening to top chamber music groups from around the world. And Eric Wilson is one of the most knowledgeable presenters we’ve met.

What would you count as a key achievement for the group and as an individual within the group?

Despite the fact that we are very different personalities, we’ve found ways to organize our work together so that the audience usually hears a coherent interpretation of the works on the program. The fact that we’ve lasted this long attests to our basic respect for each other, as well as our sense of humour and perspective about ourselves both individually and collectively, which have allowed us to defuse potential problems before they become divisive.

Is there one composer’s body of work that all of you can agree on as being truly the best string quartets? How does that agreement affect your approach to the music over time?

I think we all agree that the 16 Beethoven quartets have been the cornerstone of our repertoire. Other major bodies of work include the Bartok and Shostakovich quartets. Our admiration for the music enables us to continue working on it, intermittently but repeatedly over the years, trying to face the same interpretive and technical problems over and over again — maybe finding new solutions sometimes — because it’s worth the effort to try to do justice to great works of art. It’s also gratifying when we feel we’ve reached the audience in a visceral way.

Those moments are emotionally and aesthetically rewarding, and they are a large part of what keeps us going through thick and thin.

What significance does Schubert’s String Quintet in C major hold for the group?

We have long felt that the Schubert Cello Quintet is one of the greatest works of chamber music. We’ve enjoyed playing it with both of our former cellists (Eric Wilson [UBC professor – ed] and David Finckel) over the years, as well as with other guests like Mstislav Rostropovich, with whom we recorded it 32 years ago. The music has depth, grandeur, pathos and passion. Each of the four movements has beautiful examples of Schubert’s sublime gift of melody. In this work, as in his late string quartets and piano sonatas, he was working on a very big aesthetic canvas, and his command of large-scale structure had grown enormously.

So when we play the Quintet, we usually have the sense of participating in something that is larger than ourselves. We’re also playing Haydn’s Quartet in G major, Opus 33 No 5, and Dmitri Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 12 in D-flat major, Opus 13 Haydn, whose quartets were all experimental in one way or another, often played with his listeners’ expectations. In the first movement of this quartet, he begins with a brief wisp of a motive that sounds more like an ending than a beginning.

This motivic cell is incorporated into the thematic material, recurs at key moments, and does indeed serve as the ending. But in a subtle display of the composer’s wit, at the final cadence the four notes of this motive are repeated in unison, as if to reiterate an implied statement: “Whatever you may have thought before, now this really is the end.” The buoyant good cheer of the first movement gives way to an emotional, declamatory Largo in G minor, in which the solo line of the first violin often sounds like a vocal aria with a sympathetic accompaniment in the three lower instruments, though it is also filled with expressive violinistic figurations. High spirits return in the rollicking Scherzo, and the finale is an expertly crafted set of variations on a dance-like “Siciliano” theme.

Regarding the Shostakovich, I crafted a speech after the war in Ukraine began, because it was impossible to ignore the new crisis when presenting music by one of the greatest Russian composers, whose music was so affected by, and reflective of, the tragic history of the 20th century. I can say this specifically about the Twelfth Quartet: he experimented with a 12-tone row as an introduction to the main theme of the first movement. Though he didn’t develop the row serially, there seems to be an implied message that he might have composed some serial music if he hadn’t been living in a rigid society where a creative artist could easily — and dangerously — be charged with “formalism” for stepping outside the official constraints of music written “for the people.” The second movement goes through many different sections and moods, ending with increasingly emphatic and, ultimately, triumphant music.

Shostakovich was a great orchestrator, and this ability is evident even in his works for string quartet, which he could often make sound as if the whole ensemble were greater than the sonic sum of its parts, i.e. the two violins, viola and cello.

What does your future hold?

We’ll all continue teaching cooperatively at Stony Brook University, where we’ve been in residence for the past 20 years and where in recent years we’ve curated the Emerson String Quartet Institute. My colleagues also teach at the Cleveland Institute of Music, the Robert McDuffie Center for Strings at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, and the Yale School of Music. I have recently joined the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music and will begin teaching there in 2023/24.

We all want to pursue our performing careers beyond the sunset of the Emerson Quartet. I’m the Music Director of the Berkshire Bach Society’s “Bach at New Year’s” concerts. I hope to continue as an occasional recitalist and soloist with orchestras, too. I’ve had two novels published, have a written a third (based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet) which I’m trying to get published, and have composed music for voice and strings, as well as a string quartet. The Escher Quartet has performed and recorded various works I’ve written.

Phil Setzter – violin

phil from emerson quartetAre there any unique aspects to playing in Vancouver? The hall? The audience?

Just that we have so many close friends in Vancouver, all of whom come to our concerts each time we play there. When we walk out on stage, we feel the warmth from the audience and it helps us relax and play for our friends.

What would you count as a key achievement for the group and for you as an individual within that group?

I am very proud of the way we have grown as a group, and also as individuals, both musically and personally. It’s amazing to me that after all these years we have stayed close friends and basically have a good time with a lot of intensity, but also much laughter!

Is there a piece or body of work by a particular composer you can all agree on?

We generally agree about music, but we are always searching to improve what we do, and that includes taking things apart and putting them back together. It’s frustrating sometimes when it’s taken apart and we can’t quite figure out how to put it right again, but I think it also keeps what we do fresh.  It is certainly never boring.  We also play a lot of varied repertoire, even on a given tour, which is in itself a challenge. I often envy the other groups who travel with one or two programs. But, again, we like the challenge and I think it has been good for us (and certainly for the presenters) that we offer a lot of program choices.

What does Franz Schubert’s String Quintet in C major mean both to the group and to you individually?

The Schubert Cello Quintet is my favourite piece of music. We have played it many times with many different cellists. My fondest memory of this piece was recording the slow movement with Rostropovich. We recorded it in a small, beautiful church in Speyer, Germany, on a winter night in December. You could see the snow falling outside the beautiful window of the church, lit by a street lamp. It was quiet in a way that only occurs when it is snowing outside. That was the perfect setting for one of the greatest slow movements ever written.

We are very much looking forward to playing this masterpiece in Vancouver with our dear friend, and the original cellist of the Emerson Quartet, Eric Wilson.

What does the future hold for you?

I will continue to perform in a relatively limited way, in my trio with David Finckel (the former Emerson Quartet cellist for 34 years) and his wife, Wu Han. I also am teaching full time at Stony Brook University and part time at the Cleveland Institute of Music, where I am the Artistic Director of Strings Chamber Music. I am looking forward to having the time and energy to focus more on teaching and performing with students at both schools.  We have the Emerson String Quartet Institute at Stony Brook, which we will continue to run together–the four of us plus David Finckel, who has remained on the faculty there.

For the past 40 years or so, I have spent a lot of time and energy fitting in teaching around all the tours, performances, and recordings of the Emerson Quartet. Now I will find the time to play concerts fitting around my teaching schedule, so there will be quite a difference in what my main focus will be. I’m looking forward to that, but I’m also sad that the quartet will stop performing. But it feels like the right time, if there is ever a right time to stop.

Larry Dutton – viola

larry from emerson quartetCan you share a favourite memory or curious anecdote from any of your visits to Vancouver? Maybe comment about the relationship with FCM?

I imagine Gene has already talked about our wild first appearance where Eric had to rent an airplane to get us to the concert in time! That was crazy!

Our relationship has always been about the amazing Eric Wilson who believed in us from the very beginning of our career and has continued to engage us I believe almost every season since. I’m sure it’s been over 30 times we performed for the FCM!

Are there any unique aspects to playing here? The hall? The audience?

The audience has always been great and very supportive! The hall is a challenge in that the acoustics are better for theatrical productions. That said, we have gotten used to it over the years and it is certainly very clear. I believe the audience enjoys that clarity too!

What would you count as key achievements for the group and for yourself within it?

I think the quartet has been very fortunate to have four equal and strong members. After David Finckel left in 2013, we were so fortunate to have Paul Watkins join us. We were very lucky to have a great recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon and made many recordings that achieved great critical success. We won nine Grammys and three Gramophone awards! It’s been wonderful to be part of a great chamber music and string quartet tradition, and I feel very fortunate.

Is there a single piece or body of work by a particular composer that you can all agree on?

Most of the great composers wrote string quartets and we’ve been continuing to work on those pieces our entire career. That would include the cycles of Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Bartok, Shostakovich and many more. We are always looking to make the music speak and we keep working at it!

What does Franz Schubert’s String Quintet in C major mean both to the group and
to you individually?

It’s always special to play that piece. We had an amazing experience in recording and performing it with Mstislav Rostropovich. It’s one of the greatest works ever written. It’s what I consider a ‘grownup’ piece, like the late Beethoven quartets, or the Brahms clarinet quintet. The Schubert Quintet will be the last piece we perform on our last concert, which is at Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center in New York on October 22, 2023. David Finckel will be the 2nd cellist, so that performance will represent a real complete circle!

Any comments about the Haydn String Quartet in G major, Opus 33 No 5 and Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 12 in D-flat major, Opus 133?

We are playing the last Shostakovich quartets in other concerts these days, and it still amazes me how powerful and relevant his music is! The 12th quartet has a big, loud ending which is not his normal way of writing quartets. Very exciting! The Haydn quartet is genius, with great humour and a gorgeous slow movement!

What does the future hold for you?

Well, I’m still planning on teaching at Stony Brook University in New York. It’s been a wonderful place where we work with almost all DMA students and a few Masters students. The level is very high, and we have established the Emerson String Quartet Institute and have some pretty wonderful groups in that program. I also teach at my friends’ music school, the Robert McDuffie Center for Strings at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia.

I plan on doing guest appearances with other quartets because I love the viola quintetrepertoire. I also run a concert series in my former residence of Bronxville, New York. And I’m hoping to do more playing with other friends, too!

Paul Watkins – cello

paul from emerson quartetCan you share a favourite memory or anecdote from any of your visits to Vancouver?

Since I joined the Emerson Quartet nearly 10 years ago, it has been clear to me from talking with my colleagues that the Friends of Chamber Music concerts have a special meaning for the group. I have always been struck by the warmth and attentiveness of the audience.

I can only recall one time when that attentiveness was broken, rather shockingly, when Gene Drucker accidentally hit his music stand in a particularly exciting passage from a Bartok quartet [final movement of Bartok’s Quartet No 4 – ed], causing the tip of his bow to shear off! I remember that. It was a real show stopping moment, quite literally!

How have you found playing at the Vancouver Playhouse?

Because the hall was built primarily as a drama theatre, it has an intimacy that some more traditional concert halls lack. This allows us to communicate with a heightened sense of directness.

What would you count as a key achievement for the group and as an individual within the group?

For the group to have stayed together for 47 years and continued to maintain a sense of good humour and camaraderie is an achievement in itself! One of my personal highlights from my time in the quartet was performing a complete cycle of Beethoven string quartets at the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival, where I am Artistic Director.

Can you all agree on a perfect (or near perfect) body of work by any composers?

I think we would all agree that the string quartets of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Bartok and Shostakovich represent the high-water marks of creativity in the genre. We certainly have room for disagreement about certain other composers – if anyone has serious doubts about a particular piece, we don’t play it.

What does the Schubert String Quintet in C major mean to you on a personal level?

The Schubert Quintet has held a special place in my heart since I was a 10-year-old, when I first heard the piece on an LP, featuring Isaac Stern, Alexander Schneider, Milton Katims, Pablo Casals, and Paul Tortelier. The spiritual and tonal beauty of the piece captivated me then and, after more than 40 years, still has the power to transport me.

What does the future hold for you?

After our final concert in October 2023, my immediate future will consist of a long rest! More seriously, I will continue to teach 12 young cellists at the Yale School of Music, and with all my colleagues in the quartet will be involved in nurturing a new generation of quartet players at our Emerson String Quartet Institute at Stony Brook University. I also intend to devote more time to another one of my musical passions, conducting.

Eric Wilson – UBC music professor, and original cellist with the Emerson Quartet

eric from emerson quartetDo you have any memories tied to a performance of Schubert’s String Quintet in C major?

I fondly remember a particular performance of the great Schubert C major quintet during the time that I was a founding member of the Emerson Quartet, before moving to Vancouver a few years later. It was at the height of the summer season on a particularly exquisite evening; the air bursting with the sweet aromatic scents from fresh rain wafting across the shores of Lake Champlain. It was a performance at the Vermont Mozart Festival which took place in the renovated stables of the sprawling Vanderbilt-Web estate called Shelburne Farms, not far from Burlington, Vermont.

The audience greeted us with enthusiastic and generous applause as we sat in our places on stage. The other cellist performing with us that night was Fortunato Arico, who sadly passed away some years later at far too early an age.

Phil, who played the first fiddle part that night, raised his bow and elegantly cued us to start. Just as we were about to play, a raucous cacophony of sound seemed to completely envelop the entire audience and performers. The crickle-crackle sound juxtaposed with jagged, razor sharp and asymmetric intrusions was simply too much competition for any string quintet. It was the most powerful and mighty orchestra of crickets any of us had ever heard.

Normally, the show must go on, but Phil took it upon himself as the leader that it was best to cease playing and allow the rogue ensemble to quiet down before a restart of what surely must be one of the most sublime of all artistic creations. Twice they interrupted our performance but on our third attempt the little critters miraculously must have come to the realization that there was just no competing with Schubert. We were on our way!

It was a memorable performance for me and I will always treasure those marvellous early years, sharing our youthful exuberance and joy of making beautiful music together. It is hard to believe that the Emerson Quartet is now at the sunset of its career after so many musical triumphs over many decades. They have given a tremendous gift to chamber music audiences all over the world! I shall always cherish the friendship and memories with these superb musicians and marvellous and fine human beings!

And on that note, we hope that you can join us for what promises to be a fantastic final live concert in Vancouver by the fabulous Emerson String Quartet on December 4, 2022!

The images and interview was conducted by Mark Mushet.