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Emerson String Quartet Taking Final Bow at Staller Center

Emerson string quartet
Emerson string quartet
The Emerson String Quartet: Paul Watkins, cello; Eugene Drucker, violin; Philip Setzer, violin; Larry Dutton, viola. Photo by Jürgen Frank.

Group members will continue to contribute to Stony Brook University

After 47 years together, the Emerson String Quartet will perform their final Stony Brook University concert on Saturday, October 14. The performance, a celebration of the Quartet’s nearly 25-year-long history as Artists in Residence at Stony Brook, will be held on the Staller Center’s Main Stage and is one of their final concerts — after playing at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., on October 20, the Quartet will finish with “The Final Farewell” at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall in New York October 21 and 22.

Formed in 1976 when the members were students at the Juilliard School, the group was one of the first string quartets in which the violins alternate first and second chairs. In 2002, the ensemble began to perform while standing, for most of its concerts, with the cellist seated on a riser. These novel approaches have enabled the group to leave an indelible mark on the landscape of chamber music.

Their choice of the name “Emerson” was a tribute to the American transcendentalist poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose ideals of individualism, self-reliance and intellectual exploration resonated deeply with the quartet members.

The Quartet quickly gained recognition for their artistry and innovation in interpreting classical and contemporary chamber music. One of their early achievements was winning the prestigious Naumburg Chamber Music Award in 1978, a recognition that propelled them into the international spotlight.

Since that time, the Quartet has made more than 30 critically acclaimed recordings and has been honored with nine GRAMMYs® (including two for Best Classical Album), three Gramophone Awards, the Avery Fisher Prize, and Musical America’s “Ensemble of the Year” award. They performed and recorded with guests such as Mstislav Rostropovich, Menahem Pressler, David Shifrin, Leon Fleisher and Evgeny Kissin, and performed thousands of concerts across five continents.

“It was an amazing and visionary move by Stony Brook and the president at the time, Shirley Kenny, to bring arguably the most distinguished and well-known string quartet in the world to our Music Department nearly twenty years ago, said Christina Dahl, chair of the Department of Music in the College of Arts and Sciences. “In addition to their yearly performance schedule at the Staller Center, the Quartet have been incredible chamber music coaches and teachers, and in the last few years, have established the Emerson Quartet Institute, a two-year program for string players who aspire to become the vital new string quartets for the next generation,”

In the spring of 2016, group members Philip Setzer and Lawrence Dutton, both violinists, received the status of distinguished professor, and part-time faculty members Eugene Drucker, a violinist, and Paul Watkins, a cellist, were conferred the title of honorary distinguished professor.

Emerson inauguration
The Emerson String Quartet performed as part of the inauguration of President Maurie McInnis in 2021. Photo by John Griffin.

The Emerson String Quartet Institute was founded in 2017 to provide rigorous training for excellent string quartets by the group members, joined by the quartet’s ex-cellist, David Finckel. Individual student quartets receive coachings and attend master classes in which all of the quartets participate collaboratively and supportively. Academic courses, in historical and analytical topics centered on the string quartet, are offered by the department’s academic faculty.

Practical training in career development is a feature of the program, and students may also complete courses in professional management, marketing, and fundraising skills. The goal of the Institute is to provide complete training for string quartets, both in performance as well as in all other areas necessary for success as a string quartet.

The difficulty of traveling, with extensive delays and cancellations, impacted the group’s decision to retire. The members each run festivals in addition to performing individually, teaching and mentoring.

The group will now focus on performing individually and on teaching the next generation of musical scholars. “Now we are preparing for life and work beyond the Emerson String Quartet, which will afford us the opportunity to continue performing as individuals and to pass along the fruits of our experience to younger generations of musicians, especially through our residency at Stony Brook University, where we curate the Emerson String Quartet Institute,” said Drucker. “It seemed like the right time for each and for all of us to make a transition to life as individual performers and to intensify our focus on our teaching careers.”

Emerson string quartet
The Quartet will focus on performing individually and on teaching the next generation of musical scholars. Photo by Jürgen Frank.

While Artists in Residence, the group has performed nearly 100 concerts to sold out crowds at the Staller Center. “They have been much more than a fixture here for more than a quarter of a century. They have performed just under 100 sold-out concerts on our Staller Center series and every concert has ended with a long standing ovation,” said Alan Inkles, director of Staller Center for the Arts.

“We are thrilled that the four members remain as key faculty after their retirement from the Emerson Quartet this month, and that they will continue to guide young quartets through the Institute, as well as teach and coach chamber music. They are also developing an exciting series through the Staller Center, so we will all continue to benefit from hearing and watching their interaction with guest artists, faculty, and talented students from our program,” said Dahl. “It is a bittersweet moment to say goodbye to the Emerson Quartet, but we are so privileged to have the four members of that storied group as colleagues who remain committed to the Music Department, the Staller Center, and Stony Brook University.”

“They will continue to provide training and mentoring to student string quartets and continue to perform individually in various concerts and recitals throughout the year. We reflect with gratitude on this talented Quartet as their performance schedule concludes,” said Stony Brook University President Maurie McInnis.

The October 14 program will feature Beethoven String Quartet in Bb Major and Schubert String Quintet in C Major. Special guest and former Emerson cellist, David Finckel, will join the ensemble for the Schubert piece. Following the performance, a celebratory reception for all attendees will be held in the Main Lobby of the Staller Center.

— Beth Squire

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