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A Distinguished Quartet

From the beginning of their partnership in 1976, the Emerson String Quartet understood that it was going to take more than musical talent to bring them to stardom. That year, founding members Philip Setzer and Eugene Drucker (violinists, now joined by violist Lawrence Dutton and cellist Paul Watkins), pooled the proceeds from their first tour ($300 each, Setzer recalled) to commission photos by Christian Steiner, known for his portraits of opera divas and conductors.

“They were interested in relating to their peers in and out of music,” their longtime publicist Shirley Kirshbaum said, recalling how the young quartet sought an informal, expressive image to communicate the relevance and the passionate eclecticism of their musical adventure. Conveying their charisma in their publicity as well as their performances soon made them the Fab Four of the classical music world.

This notable knack for the showbiz aspect of their métier is one source of wisdom the Quartet will pass on to students at the new Emerson String Quartet Institute at Stony Brook. The experience of sustaining a 40-year collaboration with unabated professional and artistic success — nine Grammy Awards and shelves of recordings cherished by aficionados — is another. Virtuosity at the highest level in string playing is, of course, paramount. They will share all of this in the unique Institute, a partnership with the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Music and the Stony Brook College of Business.

Setzer said the program is a rarity in advanced music education. The purpose is to help prepare students for managing their quartet as an enterprise as they set out on the arduous path of making careers as classical performers.

“The Institute will include an academic component, at least in terms of lectures relating to the music we will be studying, both analytical and historical,” Setzer said.

But it will also focus on career development, said Drucker. “That includes marketing of recordings and performances for the digital age; speaking to the audience and writing about music; the study of rare musical manuscripts; imaginative programming; historic recordings of earlier string quartets; and prevention of occupational injuries.”

Manuel London, dean of the College of Business, emphasized the importance of the partnership between the two departments. “Performance groups, especially classical string quartets, need to understand key elements of marketing, finance, accounting, operations, leadership and human resources. They need to create their brand and reach their market.”

Department of Music Chair Perry Goldstein stressed the mentoring aspect of the Institute and how valuable that is to students aspiring to careers in music. “I know from having the privilege of being on the same faculty with these musicians these past 15 years how generous, collegial and supportive they are of their colleagues and students. They have also launched many string quartets in professional careers, at Stony Brook and elsewhere. These include the Artemis, Avalon, Borealis, Calder, Pacifica and Ying quartets.”

Recently, the Quartet mentored the Calidore String Quartet at Stony Brook (2015–2017), which in 2016 won the University of Michigan’s inaugural top M-Prize, the world’s biggest cash award for chamber music at $100,000.

“They offer us insight into the finer details of the music like fingerings and voicing, but also guide us in refining our musical voice while encouraging us to follow our own artistic vision,” said Ryan Meehan, the Calidore’s first violinist. “They also mentored us on the career aspects of being in a quartet from programming to publicity. On top of all of this, they are some of the nicest and most generous people we are fortunate to know.”

Appropriately then, as the ensemble enters its fifth decade, Dutton and Setzer have received the honor of SUNY Distinguished Professor, and part-time faculty members Drucker and Watkins have been awarded the title of Honorary Distinguished Professor.

At the Emerson Institute, these rare performer-professors’ devotion to the highest standards of technique and taste will be passed on to gifted successors, and along with that rare art, the tradition of the most generous pedagogy, ensuring the passing of the torch for generations to come.

M.R. Klein is a writer, media consultant and music lover from New York City.

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