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Emerson String Quartet Plays--the ‘American’ Way

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What’s in a name? Sometimes, quite a lot. In the case of the Emerson String Quartet, formed during the Bicentennial year and named after the American philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, there is strong identification with values we recognize as inherently American.

Its members hail from a melting pot of backgrounds. All are American-trained, all seem driven to succeed and willing to work for it. Just under 40, they have all-American good looks and run their operation in a democratic and businesslike fashion.

Each member has an assigned, though not inflexible, role in addition to performing. Violinist Philip Setzer compiles the programs, violist Larry Dutton looks after the quartet’s finances, and cellist David Finckel has turned his Manhattan apartment into a recording studio and tapes concerts and rehearsals. When it comes to conceptualizing the direction in which they’re heading and the perspective on their achievements, violinist Eugene Drucker is the spokesman.

Over the last decade, they have gained steadily in reputation and risen to the front ranks of quartets. They are known for their high standards, their teamwork, their clean, virtuosic, always reliable accounts of the music. They have enjoyed increasing demand in a music economy where chamber music is in robust health.

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As much as they create a style, they are products of a contemporary style: Juilliard training; the recording industry, through which we have become accustomed to safe, note-perfect performances; and large halls. (They appear in the “Chamber Music at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre” series tonight and next Monday.)

What does it mean to be an “American” string quartet?

“Americans tend to go for the electricity, or at least that’s what we do,” reflects Drucker.

“If I compare us to European quartets active now, I could probably generalize and say the Americans are harder-hitting, with more bite, more edge, more intensity and generally faster tempos. The Europeans tend towards a mellower sort of sound.”

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This approach has resulted in a schedule of more than 120 concerts a year in North America and Europe. The Emerson is in its sixth season as the resident quartet of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and ninth year as resident quartet of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

Performance residencies are at the University of Hartford and City College of New York. This week the quartet was at the Aspen Music Festival, giving three performances and conducting a master class.

From its founding in 1976, the quartet has pursued the formerly unorthodox policy of rotating first violinists, thereby eliminating the mentality of the “second fiddle,” who is often viewed both from within and from without as a quartet underdog.

The decision to switch off appeared to have numerous advantages and no disadvantages.

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Says Drucker’s co-first violinist, Philip Setzer: “Having only one first violinist limits the repertory, unless he is a workhorse. When we do a Beethoven cycle, it makes a lot of sense to share the challenge. At the beginning, some people were afraid comparisons would hurt relations in the quartet. But if anything, it’s taken away the tension between violinists.” Typically, the two fiddlers alternate leadership in every program.

Can any string quartet do the same? Setzer points out that while both violinists will almost always qualify to handle the leading part, it’s unusual for a violinist temperamentally suited for first to function well as second.

“It’s a supporting role. Some actors, for instance, can only do leads and when they try to play a supporting or character role, they fall flat.”

Though they have not followed suit in practice, members of other quartets applaud this egalitarianism on the part of the Emerson. Former Cleveland Quartet violist Atar Arad believes it is a novelty that eventually will catch on.

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“In the Cleveland we didn’t refer to our ‘second violin.’ We just said ‘one of our violinists.’ But the Emerson took it further. They put a stamp on the fact that in a quartet all members are equal. They’re leaders in this.”

What’s lost when violinists are interchangeable? To Setzer’s mind, “Perhaps there’s a certain sense of authority from the first violin that’s more difficult to establish when you’re switching.

“But we didn’t want a quartet that had an authoritarian as first. It wouldn’t work with the personalities in our quartet. The strength of the Emerson is that you hear a strong enough violin, but you don’t have one person leading or conducting the quartet.”


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