Classical: No quarter given or misunderstood

The Emerson String Quartet's trophy haul is simply unprecedented in the annals of the classical music industry.

January 8, 2009 13:18
3 minute read.


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As any musician will tell you, if you ain't got timing, you're sunk. Besides their obviously finely honed musical rhythmic gifts, the members of the stellar New York-based Emerson String Quartet have displayed their flair for being in the right place at the right time from the word go. Founded in 1976, the year of the American bicentenial, the name of the ensemble seemed like a natural choice. "We wanted to mark the importance of the year," says violinist Phillip Setzer. "We all appreciate [19th century American poet and philosopher] Ralph Waldo Emerson's work and we wanted something American for the name, something that noted American genius. Emerson was also an idealist, and his writing about music is interesting," says Setzer. Tomorrow morning (11 a.m.) Setzer and his cohorts - fellow violinist Eugene Drucker, viola player Lawrence Dutton and cellist David Finckel - will entertain an audience at the Tel Aviv Opera House with a program featuring works by Shostakovich and Schubert. Thought-provoking Emerson quotes surface constantly, a poignant one being: "To be great is to be misunderstood." Based on that premise, however, the quartet would be thought of as anything but great. Consider the no less than eight Grammy Awards garnered by the ensemble over the years, not to mention the numerous recordings that have attracted rave reviews across the board. The quartet has produced over thirty acclaimed albums, produced with Deutsche Grammophon since 1987, and, in addition to the Grammys, there are three Gramophone Awards and an Avery Fisher Prize vying for mantelpiece space in their homes. The trophy haul is simply unprecedented in the annals of the classical music industry. Glitter and kudos notwithstanding, Setzer and his colleagues keep a level head and their noses to the grindstone. "Basically, you just hope your recording does well. Winning a Grammy, of course, helps to sell records and makes sure you have a good relationship with your record company. But we still work very hard at what we do." He ain't kidding. The quartet crisscrosses the globe constantly performing around 100 concerts a year. Add that to a plethora of highly acclaimed recordings, including cycles of the complete Beethoven, Bartók and Shostakovich string quartets, as well as teaching work at Stony Brook University in New York, where they are the string quartet in residence - Setzer is also a full professor there - and that makes for one punishing schedule. "Playing classical music is not like doing pop or rock, or being a movie actor," Setzer notes. "Those guys can have one hit and they're made for life. But we love what we do." The quartet's longevity is no less impressive. Setzer puts that down to a combination of factors, "We have different opinions about music, but we always have respect for the composer and the score. We can make changes but there's always one of us who, at some stage, will remind us we need to stick closely to the original composition. It's as if we always have the composer with us in the room, like a fifth player." Setzer also says all four share their admiration for other artists, such as legendary cellist Mstislav Rostropovich with whom Finckel worked for many years. "If David discovered one of us didn't respect Rostropovich, we would have a problem," declares Setzer. They all have outside interests too. Eugene Drucker, for example, recently published a well-received novel called The Savior which is based on the Holocaust. And they each have other musical pursuits, although none stray very far from the classical genre. "Growing up I was a huge fan of the Beatles and Elvis, and I love the old ballad jazz stuff." Setzer recalls. "Singers like Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday, and even Frank Sinatra, have influenced my playing and phrasing. And there's [jazz greats] John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman and the Duke Ellington big band." Still, there's not much chance of catching Setzer jamming in some New York jazz joint. "I stick to what I know. I don't think I'd feel too comfortable trying to play jazz." Ellington's loss is Shostakovich's gain. "I always felt there was drama and theater in the Shostakovich quartets, and I think he was more truthful in them than in the bigger pieces he wrote. I also believe he was, and is still, very much misunderstood in the west." Emerson, one presumes, would get that. For more information about the Emerson String Quartet concert, call (03) 692-7777 or visit

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