Thursday, August 26, 2021

Emerson Quartet to Retire

The Emerson String Quartet, among the most famous and honored quartets of the last several decades, has decided that it's time to retire. The members will continue to perform together until the end of the summer of 2023, two years from now.

The group was formed 47 years ago, when the founders were students at the Juilliard School in NYC. The current members are violinist Philip Setzer, 70, a founder; Eugene Drucker, violin, 69, also a founder; Lawrence Dutton, 67, violist, who joined in 1977, and cellist Paul Watkins, who joined in 2013 and replaced David Finckel.

I only heard the Emerson live once, in a stupendous program that included works by Martinu, Saariaho, and Sheng. I loved it all. A string-playing friend later mention to me that their sound - which was huge and definitely scaled to large concert halls - was somewhat controversial, and that the smaller, more intimate sound I heard from another quartet around the same time was often thought to be closer to the ideal for a quartet.

There's a NY Times article with this news, and it includes the following quotation from Setzer:

“At a certain point you think, ‘Let’s end when we’re all really playing our best and the group sounds good.’ And when people are going to be surprised we’re stopping and not, ‘Oh, you’re still playing?’ ”

This is an issue for all performing artists as they age, because humans have physical limits. If you play a string or wind instrument, changes in your hearing might make it harder to tell whether you're in tune. If you're a dancer, your body takes a constant pounding. Singers' voices change over time and perhaps high notes get harder to hit. After a concert in which at least one member of a different string quartet had obvious-to-the-audience technical issues, I blogged about this question. It really, truly, wasn't the Emerson; it was a distinguished, but less-well-known quartet. Still, one commenter guessed that it might have been the Emersons. I was surprised, but I hadn't heard them in several years at that point, and I couldn't speak to how well they were playing.

The group leaves a large recorded legacy of around 50 sets, if I'm reading their web site correctly, and many, many students from master classes, individual teaching, and the Emerson String Quartet Institute at Stony Brook University.  (They will continue their teaching work as a group and individually, as I understand it; their Institute will continue.) I am sure that they will be greatly missed.

UPDATED 27 August 2021: Added NY Times link and clarified the group's continuing activity as teachers.

No comments: