Happy 40th anniversary to the Emerson String Quartet! On behalf of WKCR-FM, Columbia University’s non-commercial student-run radio station, Jordan spoke with Emerson Quartet’s violinist Eugene Drucker (CC ’73) and violist Lawrence Dutton about how they’re celebrating this year, their newly-released album – Chaconnes and Fantasias: Music of Britten and Purcell – their connection to Columbia University, and more. Don’t miss the Emerson Quartet as they tour this summer! Listen to the interview or read more below.
J: Well, first of all, congratulations on your 40th anniversary! It’s quite a milestone. How is the quartet celebrating?
L: Oh wow, oh this has been quite a – quite a big year. We started off in Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York. Our former cellist, David Finckel, and his wife [Wu Han] are artistic directors there. They brought us in for a special two concert celebration and now – wonderful thing, Deutsche Grammophon produced a fifty-two box set of CDs of 25 years of work discography. Yeah, fifty-two, once a week, you can listen to it once a week – for a whole year – and we’ve just signed a contract, a recording contract with now the flagship of the classical music for Universal Recordings: Universal Music. It’s now called Decca Gold, and that’s where our new recording is. And then, at the end of next week, we’ll be performing May 7th at Carnegie Hall, playing two string quartets by Ravel and Berg, and the Brahms Quintet with Yefim Bronfman on piano.
J: Wow, you guys sound really busy!
L: It’s been a good year. Yes.
J: So, I listened to your newest album. It’s amazing! I wanted to ask why Britten and Purcell, like what drew you to record these pieces for this album?
E: Four years ago, we were joined by cellist Paul Watkins, who’s British, and that might have been part of the reason that we decided to focus more on British music than we had previously. It’s true that we have played the second and third quartets, but not around the same time, and just not that often in our career. We tended to focus on other things, different things at various points in our career, and I think even if we still had an American cellist, we probably would have come to embrace this music because it was time for us to involve ourselves in this important modernist voice of the twentieth century, Benjamin Britten. Ever since I was a student at Juilliard, I was aware of these Purcell Fantasias that string quartets sometimes played, but in all the decades of our professional activity, we had not yet become familiar with these pieces. And so, it was great to learn them and to have an opportunity to make certain stylistic decisions – how to approach music that was conceived for a consort of viols and decades before anything resembling the first string quartet happened. I would say that happened in the 1760’s through the hands of Josef Haydn.
J: Could you describe a little bit of what your rehearsal process is like for these British pieces, compared to rehearsing for something like Ravel or Brahms, that you are going to perform next week at Carnegie? Like what do you guys focus on?
L: Well, that’s a good question actually, but there really is not a difference in how one rehearses. I would say one thing we did in recording the fantasias, particularly of Purcell, is that we were looking for a different kind of style. We had to find a style that would accommodate the music, be appropriate for the music, for the purity of his writing, and it is different – the kind of playing is different than playing, say, Brahms, or, you know, Ravel or whatever, even different than playing Haydn or Mozart. So we had to explore that. That was maybe the biggest challenge with the Fantasias. The Britten quartets have a really unique sonics quality that Britten has brought to the string quartet. You have Bartok, you have Shostakovich, you have Janecek. I would say Britten is one of the most important innovators of the string quartet writing in the 20th century, and so his music takes special skill. There’s a lot of interesting techniques that we had to develop and figure out that are challenging. Like the way it is challenging to play Bartok. And why I wanted to do this music, in addition, was because it is a part of the repertoire discography that we have that was missing, you know, from our catalog. We really believe that it’s very important music and it needs to be heard, and so we were happy to have this opportunity to record it.
J: I’m particularly a big fan of the third movement of Britten’s second string quartet, and I really liked the chords that you guys played at the end. I feel like they all rang so magnificently and perfectly. How do you guys achieve that kind of sound quality?
L: Good. Well you’re right that’s, that was a big challenge in that piece because, you know, as all of these wonderful composers, going back to Brahms and Beethoven – you name, you know, any of the great composers, any of the great romantic composers – Bartok, Shostakovich, the modern composers – they wrote, really, in a symphonic way and the end of that second quartet is very symphonic. To kind of achieve the sound, to achieve the triumph of the end of that piece was a particularly difficult challenge because there’s a limit. I mean, we are only four people and to try to create the illusion that you’re almost bigger than a string quartet, that’s the big challenge, and I am happy to hear that you believe that happened. That’s great.
Listen to the Emerson String Quartet play the third movement of Britten’s String Quartet No. 2 in C Major, Op. 36.
J: Yeah, I think you guys definitely succeeded in that, for sure. [E: Good, thank you] So I’d like to talk a little bit about your musical influences. I heard from a couple of violin teachers, Richard Rood and Jan Mark Sloman [L: Richard Rood – I just saw him the other day. We just did a recording session together.] They both say hi, by the way, that several members of the Emerson Quartet studied with Oscar Shumsky. I just wanted to ask what was it like to study with him. Was there anything – like what did he emphasize?
L: If you have about a day, I know that Gene and Phil could explain that. I’ll just say, ‘cause I don’t mean to speak for you, Gene, but let me just say, Oscar Shumsky, and people don’t know who Oscar Shumsky was but, in my book – in the top five violinists of all time, he’s in the top five. One of the greatest violinists that ever lived, one of the greatest musicians. People don’t know him as well obviously as Heifetz and Milstein and Oistrakh because it’s just the way careers go and things happen, but he was a great teacher also. And I’ll let Gene speak to that. Gene and Phil both studied with him as did the former violist of the Emerson before I joined. He was a great influence.
E: Yes, so I would agree with all of that and say that it was overwhelming, occasionally intimidating to go to a lesson week after week no matter what I brought in or if I heard the tail end of the previous student’s lesson or the beginning of the next student’s lesson could bring in just entirely different things. Mr. Shumsky had an encyclopedic knowledge of the entire violin repertoire. And when I speak of knowledge I mean not only in his head but in his hands and his fingers – he could demonstrate anything and it was a feast of great musicianship.
Listen to Oscar Shumsky and Glenn Gould perform the first movement of Richard Strauss’ Sonata for Violin and Piano, Op. 18.
J: I heard that Mr. Drucker was a student at Columbia and WKCR is run by…
E: We do have a couple of more minutes, it turns out, so my having been a student at Columbia, yes.
J: Could you tell us a little about what your life was like as a student here? Were there any cool classes or anything that you liked?
E: Well I was an English and Comp Lit major when I was at Columbia and it was a great experience. I have lots of wonderful associations to the campus even though I never lived there. I lived at home for the first three years. I went to Columbia for 5 years because it was just too difficult to go there and to Juilliard simultaneously and to try to take the requisite number of courses in in the usual 4 years. I still have nostalgic feelings occasionally if I happen to walk or drive by the Columbia campus. It was a time of great intellectual stimulation for me in various subjects, and as a musician I did take a few courses while I was there, though most of my musical work was happening at Juilliard. But I took a course on Schoenberg that was taught by a woman who had studied with Schoenberg, Patricia Carpenter, and a composition course with Charles Warren. So I would say that those experiences plus my main involvement in the English Department – they were tremendously inspiring for me. I favored certain areas of English literature more than others just in terms of my own preferences. I was always a big Shakespeare nut, for example, and I took modern British literature with the late Edward Said who was such an important figure. So, I was blessed to have that opportunity.
J: Yeah, I mean I think so many student-musicians at this school are always flitting back and forth between their musical and nonmusical interests. You kinda answered this already, but what interests do the quartet members have outside of music and in what interesting ways do those other interests overlap with their musical ones?
L: Well, all of us are actually in different degrees involved with teaching. That’s obviously very important, because we realize that we have a lot of experience that we can share, and that becomes very important to keep teaching and seeing that the great tradition being passed on. But we all have the other interests too.
E: Yes, well I finally, after decades, have come back to some composing even though I was mostly focused on that during my teenage years along with my violin playing. And my experience as a literature major at Columbia eventually resulted in the publication of the novel that I was working on intermittently for many years. That novel is called The Savior and it was published by Simon & Schuster, oh it’s almost 10 years ago now.
J: Oh wow, yeah I think I saw something about that before. That’s awesome. Well yeah, I think our time is probably going to be up soon. I guess my next question would just be how do we keep up with what you are doing in the future – like what are your social media handles and stuff like that?
L: Oh that’s good [laughs]. I have to try to remember what those are. Well there’s always the website of emersonquartet.com and we’re also on Facebook. I believe we’re also on Instagram and Twitter. I can’t do all the handles for you but [laughs] anyway we’ve got a lot of projects. We just signed this recording contract with Decca Gold which is the new classical music company for Universal Music in America. So besides this new recording, we have two more, and we’ve got a lot of projects down the road – some theater projects and performances with Evgeny Kissin and we’re very excited. It’s an exciting time for us.
Founded in 1976 and based in New York City, the Emerson String Quartet is comprised of violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violist Lawrence Dutton and cellist Paul Watkins. They have amassed an unparalleled list of achievements over four decades: more than thirty acclaimed recordings, nine Grammys® (including two for Best Classical Album), three Gramophone Awards, the Avery Fisher Prize, Musical America’s “Ensemble of the Year” and collaborations with many of the greatest artists of our time. They have just released a new album to celebrate their 40th anniversary, titled Chaconnes and Fantasias: Music of Britten and Purcell, and they performed at Carnegie Hall on Sunday, May 7, 2017.
This interview was conducted on April 26, 2017 and released on air May 4, 2017 on WKCR-FM.
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