After nearly a 50-year run, Emerson String Quartet ready to take its final bows

Founded in 1976, the Emerson String Quartet (from left, violist Lawrence Dutton, violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer and cellist Paul Watkins) will disband this fall. Pianist Emanuel Ax will join the group for its concert June 4 in Chicago.

Budapest. Guarneri. Juilliard.

Those are the names of three of the most celebrated quartets of the modern era, and most critics, chamber-music devotees and fellow chamber musicians agree that the Emerson String Quartet deserves to be on that list of august ensembles as well.

“When you think back to the great quartets in the last generations,” said noted cello soloist Gary Hoffman, who has performed with the quartet, “especially the American quartets, they have inherited that tradition and have definitely marked their era like those quartets did in theirs.”

The ensemble announced in August 2021 that it will disband in 2023 after 47 years on the road, performing its final concert in October in New York’s Alice Tully Hall. As part of an extended farewell tour, the group will present its final appearance under the auspices of the Symphony Center Presents Chamber Music Series on June 4, joining pianist Emanuel Ax. The program will consist of George Walker’s Lyric for Strings, Dmitri Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 12 in D-flat Major and Antonín Dvořák’s Piano Quintet in A Major, Op. 81.

The Emerson was founded at New York’s Juilliard School in 1976, with two of its original members — violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer — who are still in the group. Violist Lawrence Dutton joined in 1977 and cellist David Finckel came along two years later. That configuration, in which the quartet did the bulk of its recordings and for which it is best known, remained the same until 2013, when Finckel left to pursue other interests and Welsh cellist Paul Watkins took his place.

What set the Emerson apart from other quartets was its decision to use rotating first violinists. Drucker believes it was the first professional ensemble to institute this approach, and it is certainly the most famous one. Most quartets are anchored by a dominant first violinist like Robert Mann, who served in that role with the Juilliard Quartet from 1946 through 1997 and who went far in shaping its sound and approach. “But for other players, other temperaments, I think it absolutely makes sense to have the switching of first and second violin,” Drucker said. In the case of the Emerson, said Marie Wang, second violinist of the Avalon String Quartet, which studied in 1998-2000 with the group at the University of Hartford’s Hartt School, the alternating first violinists meant that its four players were all “very powerful individuals.”

“Every quartet has a very distinctive sound, character and identity to their interpretations,” she said. “When it comes to the Emerson, it’s their amazing brilliance of ensemble, the power of their sound and their individualistic, solo kind of playing. I think it’s the norm now, and that wasn’t necessarily the case with other groups.”

“There was no repertoire that they were not at home in. That’s the force of a great string quartet, to have the musical and technical wherewithal to deal all types of music.” — Gary Hoffman on Emerson String Quartet

The group is closely identified with the 15 string quartets that span Shostakovich’s career, including the No. 12 that will be heard during its Symphony Center concert. When it first began performing a few of his works in the 1980s and ’90s, they were still seen as radical, tough sells. The Emerson presented the complete quartets in venues worldwide starting in 2000 and released a recording of the complete set that same year, winning two Grammy Awards including one for best classical album. Those landmark undertakings helped make the works a standard part of today’s string-quartet repertoire.

The group similarly gained considerable attention for its 1990 recording of the six quartets by Hungarian composer Béla Bartók. But Hoffman does not believe those undertakings have in any way overshadowed its work with music from other periods and styles, which total more than 250 pieces in all. “I never really felt that there was repertoire that they were not at home in,” he said. “That’s the force of a great string quartet, to have the musical and technical wherewithal to deal all types of music.”

Along the way, the group has achieved enormous success, playing on many of the world’s most prestigious stages and collaborating with such famed soloists as soprano Renée Fleming and pianists Evgeny Kissin and Ax, its partner for this concert. It also has amassed a catalog of more than 40 albums, with the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon label issuing a 52-CD box set to mark the quartet’s 40th anniversary in 2016, and more recordings are on their way. In all, the Emerson has won nine Grammy Awards, three Gramophone Awards and Musical America’s Ensemble of the Year Award.

“We had a really good run,” Setzer said. “We’re extremely fortunate that we got along as well as we did. We’re extremely fortunate to always have good management and very lucky to able to record as much we did during the golden age of classical-music recording. We couldn’t make records fast enough for Deutsche Grammophon.”

The Emerson began discussing the idea of disbandment as far back as 2017, but it was not until 2019 that the group settled on 2023 as the final year. “It just felt like the right time,” Drucker said. “We still feel like most of the time we can play our best individually and as a group, and we want to go out on a high note.” The three older members of the group are in their late 60s and early 70s while Watkins is 53.

Considering how many of today’s quartets break up before they even reach their 25th anniversary and frequently change personnel, the Emerson’s continuation of essentially its original configuration for 47 years (34 years with Finckel as cellist) is remarkable. Hoffman believes the group made smart choices right from the start, especially about how much time they would spend together. “I always felt like the Emerson Quartet had a very healthy and intelligent way of giving each other the necessary space and freedom,” Hoffman said. “I think that’s also one of the reasons why they stayed together so long, because they understood how that would work best and what the pitfalls were.”

As the quartet winds down, the players are having a mix of emotions. “There is a feeling that has been growing that it is the right thing for us to have decided, but it is becoming more real with every passing month, so that is not always a completely happy feeling,” Drucker said. On a European tour last year, the Emerson played Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet, which it hadn’t played in eight years or so, and those were its final performances of the beloved work, which its first tackled in 1977. Musicians develop a kind of relationship with certain pieces, he said, and he felt a pang of regret putting away the printed pages of that work.

Although the Emerson is retiring, the group along with Finckel will continue to provide guidance to young players through the Emerson String Quartet Institute at Stony Brook (N.Y.) University. Indeed, last year it had a meeting with the chairman of music department about the group’s teaching plans after October 2023. In addition, several of the members have teaching affiliations with other institutions, including Watkins, now a full-time professor at the Yale School of Music in New Haven, Conn.

In addition to the Avalon, the Emerson has mentored notable quartets such as the St. Lawrence, Escher and Calidore. Wang of the Avalon Quartet has admired the Emerson since she, as a “geeky teenager,” saw the group perform on a chamber-music series in her hometown of Vancouver, British Columbia. “They just blew my socks off,” she said. “I just knew from then on that I really wanted to get into chamber music.”

By giving up performing, Setzer said, the Emerson will have more time and energy to passing along the quartet legacy that was handed down by its own mentors and which it has tried to uphold during its more than four-decade existence. “That’s not just something we want to do, it’s a responsibility to do that,” he said. He wants to share with his students, for example, stories about composers like Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg that he heard from famed violin pedagogue Felix Galimir. “We’re an important part of that continuing legacy,” Setzer said. “I think we feel honored by that as much as we feel any kind of ego about it. We were in the right place at the right time.”

A version of this article was published last year in the Ravinia magazine.

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