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Emersonian Discourse Renewed


Paul Watkins to make Boston debut as Emerson cellist
Paul Watkins to make Boston debut as Emerson cellist

The venerable Emerson String Quartet, which formed at Juilliard as a student ensemble and in 1976 took its name after the 19th-century sage from our backyard, is giving its 21st Celebrity Series concert at Jordan Hall next Thursday, January 22nd, with works by Purcell/Britten, Lowell Liebermann, and Beethoven. We recently spoke with Emerson violinist Eugene Drucker.

FLE: It is a commonplace now to say this is a Golden Age for string quartets. Since the Emerson Quartet’s beginnings, almost 30 years ago, many more such ensembles have come than gone. Almost every string player at conservatory seems to want to play in one. Why do you think that is?

ED: The repertoire includes some of the greatest music ever written. There is more support for a chamber music career than was the case decades ago; more chamber music series have been established. More-varied career paths are possible nowadays than in the past, when one had to choose—depending on one’s abilities—between a solo career and chamber music (maybe) or orchestral life, with some teaching activity as a financial base. Nowadays more soloists play chamber music in public, at least occasionally. Even within the world of string quartets, some specialize in contemporary music, crossover or some combination of the two, while more traditional quartets like ours try to play every category from before Haydn through 20th-century classics to contemporary.

Are quartet audiences growing apace?

We hope so. In any case, we have seen no diminution in the size of our audiences at most concerts. The future audience will depend on how much education and exposure to classical music can be provided during the formative years.

Is the general level of play on a higher level than when you began?

There were great quartets around when we began, and earlier. One need only mention the Guarneri, Juilliard, Budapest, and Amadeus, to name but a few. My father played for two years in the Busch Quartet. I think that the general level of string playing may have risen somewhat, both for soloists and for chamber players. But the most outstanding soloists of the past were inimitable, and I think the same could be said for the great chamber music ensembles.

Is it fair to say that there are more stylistic differences among practitioners than 20 or 30 years ago?

On the contrary, it may once have been more feasible to differentiate between an American style and a European style than it is nowadays. So many European and Asian string players study in the US, and often Americans study abroad, so that a certain globalization effect may have made itself felt. On the other hand, given that there are so many quartets, differences in musical temperament and instrumental approach are bound to increase, but they cannot easily be laid at the doorstep of national styles (which I realize may not have been the “stylistic differences” to which you were referring).

For many years the Emerson has had university residencies. Is this still the main context in which you can mentor developing ensembles? Do your mentees imitate your style?

We have been in residence at Stony Brook (part of SUNY) since 2002. Before that we taught at the Hartt School for about 20 years. Stony Brook is now the main context for our mentoring ensembles, but we hope that the young groups do not imitate us too much!

Can you say that you are disciples of any particular foursome?

We worked with members of the Juilliard Quartet in our formative stages, especially with Robert Mann. We also had some valuable coaching sessions with members of the Guarneri Quartet.

How are you transmitting your legacy other than through recordings and your work at Stony Brook?

Also through occasional master classes connected to our concert engagements, as well as our presence at the Yale Summer School of Music for the past couple of years.

There will be a Boston premiere and debut at the Celebrity series concert. New cellist Paul Watkins already sounded exceedingly well-integrated when I heard the quartet last summer in Rockport. Has his arrival brought noticeable changes?

It’s hard to be objective about our sound and style. But at the risk of generalizing about our varied approach to all sorts of repertoire, I’d say that Paul’s playing gives a somewhat deeper, darker timbre to our quartet sound. Our pacing may be slightly more relaxed or spacious than it used to be, but we hope there has been no significant loss of drive and excitement.

Lowell Liebermann’s new string quartet gets its Boston premiere. Please place it in the context of other works dedicated to the Emerson.

The Liebermann quartet has an arch form, alternating between mysterious quiet passages (mostly at the beginning and end) and other sections characterized by impassioned lyricism and rhythmic propulsion. This piece occupies what I might describe as a midpoint in the harmonic-melodic language of our various commissions—not the most conservative, but not the most avant-garde. It reflects the more flexible palette of compositional styles that has been available to composers in the past couple of decades, compared to the 1970s and ’80s, when we began to premiere new quartets.

In playing Purcell’s Two Fantasias, and the Chacony in Britten’s arrangement, do you consciously adopt the style whether of Britten’s time or Purcell’s? Do you pay any special attention to Purcell’s chromatic tensions by sounding certain intervals with more intensity that you would in other music? Are you using different bows? Early-music-style swells on each note?

We play the Fantasias in more of an early Baroque style than the Britten edition of Purcell’s Chacony, where we accept a mid-20th-century idea of dynamic contrasts, vibrato, etc. We do not use different bows for the Fantasias, and, though we certainly play with a different approach from what we take toward later music, we do not make swells on every note. The main difference is that we use much less vibrato in the Fantasias.

Despite being at the summit of his oeuvre, and despite being a thorny, late work, Op. 132 ends with a happy rondo. How does one convey the overall architecture when in the moment one is whipsawed by stark changes in mood?

The main part of the finale of Op. 132 is passionate and turbulent. It’s only in the coda that the music turns toward A Major rather than A Minor, and one senses that Beethoven has triumphed over adversity. The overall architecture is held together by maintaining a consistent tempo for most of the last movement, except when Beethoven asked for an accelerando toward the end. If one can fully enter into the stark changes of mood throughout the five movements of this monumental work, the cohesion should be there, embedded in, and embodied by, the structure of the piece.


Emerson String Quartet
Celebrity Series at Jordan Hall

Two Fantasias
Chacony, arranged by Benjamin Britten
String Quartet (Boston premiere)*
String Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Opus 132



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