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Emerson String Quartet Now an Institute

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by George Tsontakis , composer

For the past eight seasons I have had the privilege of curating a local piano series in the town of Olive in New York’s Catskill Mountains, on a volunteer basis. It is a less-than-two-hour drive from Manhattan ― traffic permitting, of course ― which allows us to attract performers from New York and surrounding areas. They have been virtuoso level pianists who come to the Catskills to try out a program destined for a larger future venue. Decidedly, not for the modest honorarium which is largely based on ticket receipts.

Piano Plus! is the name I gave the series with the concept that each concert would be a solo piano recital, but that the featured soloist would bring along a “surprise” guest performer to collaborate for a short work. In effect a kind of cameo performer. In the past the Plus has been a singer, a violist, a vibe player, a flutist, etcetera. And in one fortunate instance, the Plus came in the form of another set of hands ― those of my wonderful Bard College colleague, the great Peter Serkin. Peter actually performed throughout the entire recital, offering a few of his four hands arrangements as well as a solo work.

For three recent seasons I have curated, in one of three or four series concerts, a program featuring a young string quartet working for their doctoral degrees at the Emerson String Quartet Institute — a unique and already venerable program at SUNY Stonybrook. Last Saturday, May 4th, Piano Plus! Featured the Hesper String Quartet, recommended specifically by Lawrence Dutton and other ESQ members, intimating that they might well be the best the Institute has put out so far. My curatorial intentions regarding featuring these string quartets were not only practical, they were also personal.

Happily, I grew up with my Emerson colleagues; the original stable foursome of Setzer, Drucker, Dutton, Finckel ― each, a stellar performer, each with their individual flare and character who seem to have formed a musical synthesis even greater than the sum of their parts. As most are aware, the Emersons broke the mold of the customary assumption that there be a set first and second violin. Apparently some younger quartets have followed suit including those the Emerson players have mentored at their Institute.

My relationship with the ESQ started way back in high school days on Long Island, when I met Larry Dutton. At the time, I was a violin student who was beginning to compose, and I played in rock bands where I contributed some original tunes. Larry was still a violinist who transitioned to viola (didn’t we all?). We jammed at my family home and kept in touch and a few years later became roommates for our first two years at Juilliard ― after I had largely forsaken the viola for composing. We have remained the best of friends and I am proud to call his middle son Jesse, my godson. Larry and his talented violinist wife Liz Lim premiered my knickknack duos. Liz’s mom Kim Lim commissioned my first of four piano quartets, in memory of her husband, Dr. Lim. It was and is a special relationship of life, creativity, re-creativity and love.

Larry and I drove to our first summers in Aspen together in the mid-70s, where Larry became the principal of the revered Aspen Chamber Symphony, despite his instrument, a $500 student viola that I called the “orange cardboard box.” Such was the persuasiveness of his innate musical talents. Not long after we moved to separate apartments on the Upper West Side, I ran into Larry on a side street in the West 70s, near the Ansonia Hotel. He was somehow even more animated and lit up than usual saying something very close to the effect of “hey, I just sat in with three guys from a quartet called the Emerson and they are trying out violists. I hope it works out cause they’re great.” I guess it worked out – for over four decades, anyway.

The Emersons created my first big chamber music break, when they were named quartet in residence with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and when the CMSLC commissioned my second quartet, which I entitled “Emerson”. Almost 40 years later my entitling gesture was briefly noted in the tribute review of their finale concert at Tully Hall, the same hall where the four premiered my quartet: The Great Emerson String Quartet Takes Its Final Bow 10/23/23 NY Times. My work was a difficult and knotty post-Schoenbergian work. Being sandwiched between two masterpieces, Mozart’s Dissonance Quartet and Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, two historical masterpieces, did not help. David Finckel quipped, months later, that their efforts to learn my piece were well worth it, since it made learning Berg’s Lyric Suite a piece of cake.

Back to the present, where the Korean-American Hesper String Quartet had just performed on Piano Plus! with featured Taiwanese pianist, Neilson Chen, on May 4th. The bookend quartets were the Vierne String Quartet and Bartok’s Third; the work that ended the concert. The centerpiece with piano was the Elgar Piano Quintet, with the remarkable Neilson Chen, once a Collaborative Pianist with the Bard Conservatory, now the staff pianist with TON ―The Orchestra Now (as in, he can read and play anything!). As musical as they come, Chen plays powerfully with fistfuls of notes cascading effortlessly upward and downward, with the attentiveness of a masterful collaborative pianist.

And how did the Hespers do? Did they live up to the legacy of the great Emerson that they stand in the shadow of? In some ways yes, in some other ways not yet, but no doubt a glint and a promise to rise to that rarified level ― at least, in their own individual way. Their playing is matched elegantly and to the extent that their breathing and phrasing seem to be one and their ability to float exquisitely in unison combines with a raw dramatic intensity and power where is called for – all without over-pressing. Combining with Chen for a work that should be better known, the five displayed each of their collaborative intelligences and innate musical prowess to shape a work that attempted to outdo the Brahms and Schumann piano quintets in intensity with an extended memory form of reprise, variation ― and beauty. The fact that they put the remarkable performance together in two rehearsals was somehow mind boggling, considering not one of the five had played the work before Saturday.

The Hesper String Quartet may have some advantage towards a future of longevity in that they have both the poles of the U.S. And Korea to play with — and play on. They have already touched down on European and international venues, so there are some strong preconditions setting up. Whether the Hespers will be able to endure magically the way the Emersons did is still a long shot. The eventual creation of a Hesper String Quartet Institute at some conservatory in the States or in Korea, decades down the line, even iffier. But they’ve got a real shot at it and as we know, stranger things have happened.

Below is from the description of the Emerson program of study at SUNY Stony Brook, as offered on the university website:

Started in Fall, 2017, the Stony Brook Department of Music became home to the Emerson String Quartet Institute in the College of Arts and Sciences. The function of the Institute is to provide rigorous training for excellent string quartets. Members of the Emerson String Quartet—violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violist Lawrence Dutton, and cellist Paul Watkins—are joined by the quartet’s ex-cellist, David Finckel, to coach and mentor student string quartets.

Three or four quartets become members of the Institute, each for a period of two years. Quartets are formed from among the student body (by audition). Pre-formed quartets may also apply to the Institute; all members of the quartet must apply, and be accepted, as students. The curriculum includes coaching by all members of the Emerson Quartet and David Finckel. Individual quartets receive coachings, and master classes are held in which all of the quartets participate collaboratively and supportively. Practical training in career development—by the Emersons, the performance faculty, and invited guests—are a feature of the program.

The creation of the Institute coincided with, and celebrates, the 40th anniversary of the Emerson String Quartet. It is the goal of the Institute to provide complete training for string quartets, in all aspects of performance as well as in all other areas pertinent to successful functioning as a string quartet.

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1 Comment [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Wow! How encouraging that the Emerson tradition of excellence is being honored and taught to
    a new generation of musicians. Congratulations to SUNY Stony Brook and to the always inspiring
    Emersons. May the Emerson Institute live forever!

    Comment by Carolyn Moriarty — May 8, 2024 at 12:13 pm

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