Many musicians who form string quartets dream of meeting the kind of success that the Emerson String Quartet has had. And there is hope in the fact that the Emerson formed like many other string quartets: musicians who knew each other, got along and played well together.
Violinists Eugene Drucker and Phil Setzer met in fall 1969 at New York's Juilliard School. There, they were both devoted to violin teacher Oscar Shumsky and shared experiences including playing the first concert by the Juilliard Orchestra in its current home, Lincoln Center, under the baton of Leopold Stokowski.
"Chamber music was a requirement at the Juilliard School," Drucker says from his New York home. "By the following fall, 1970, Phil and I were playing in a quartet together and being coached by members of the Juilliard Quartet, especially Robert Mann."
Mann is the legendary founder of that legendary quartet. That is a pretty good start for any group, and it no doubt played a role in the Emerson's extraordinarily successful three decades since they solidified the current lineup, which formed about 1980: Drucker and Setzer, who alternate first and second violin; violist Lawrence Dutton; and cellist David Finckel.
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They've made more than 30 recordings for the yellow label, Deutsche Grammophon, during that time, earning nine Grammy Awards, including two for classical album of the year (1989's Bartók: Six String Quartets and 2000's Shostakovich: The String Quartets).
On Thursday, the audience at Centre College's Norton Center for the Arts in Danville will get a little taste of that Grammy-winning Shostakovich touch when the Emerson begins its 2011 calendar in Danville.
The concert will include Shostakovich's Quartet No. 8 in C minor, plus Mozart's Quartet in F Major and Dvorák's Quartet in C Major.
The Emerson has made headlines premiering and performing new works, but this concert shows the quartet doing its bread-and-butter business: offering authoritative, contemporary interpretations of the classics.
There will be one familiar face to area chamber music fans: cellist Finckel, who has been in Central Kentucky all but one of the past four Memorial Day weekends as a co-director (with his wife, pianist Wu Han) of the Chamber Music Festival of the Bluegrass. The event, at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, features the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, which they direct.
That exemplifies what Drucker sees as one of the strengths of the Emerson String Quartet.
"No one has ever laid down the law, as some string quartets have in the past, to say you have to exclude everything else and focus on the quartet activity," Drucker says. "That has allowed each of us to develop ourselves, and I think that has strengthened our contributions to the quartet when we come back to the quartet fold, so to speak."
All members of the group have active careers as soloists and with ensembles outside of the group. In addition to that, Drucker says that enjoying being together and developing a strong quartet sound were keys to the Emerson's success. A primary factor to that sound, he says, is that outside work.
"We have always been the kind of quartet that highlights the individual voices in the group," Drucker says. "We have always felt that string quartets are composed in such a way that the independence of the voices and the interplay of those voices is one of the chief characteristics that will sustain the passion of the audience throughout a performance."
Drucker and his Emerson cohorts could have gone in other directions with their careers, but the passions of patrons and friends pushed them to make the quartet the institution it is today.
"It became more and more apparent the quartet was destined to be the most successful thing," Drucker says, reflecting on the 1970s and '80s. "It aroused the most curiosity and enthusiasm among people. Phil noticed the same thing.
"We may not have anticipated the degree of success, but once it became apparent, we did everything we could both in terms of our playing, honing our ensemble and certain business decisions."