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The Emerson String Quartet’s Coda Begins

A long good-bye after four decades of ensemble stardom.

From left: Eugene Drucker, Philip Setzer, Lawrence Dutton, and Paul Watkins in Drucker’s kitchen. Photo: Stefan Ruiz
From left: Eugene Drucker, Philip Setzer, Lawrence Dutton, and Paul Watkins in Drucker’s kitchen. Photo: Stefan Ruiz

The Emerson String Quartet, which for 45 years has dominated the genre with playing that ranges from tripping elegance to brutal stomp, will spend the next two years saying good-bye. That leaves time for at least one more New York premiere, an all-Beethoven road show, a European tour, and an entire valedictory season: “A huge crescendo, then a subito piano,” violinist Philip Setzer says with relish. “We all know artists who said they were going to retire and just kept going and going,” adds fellow violinist Eugene Drucker. “We’re not going to do that.”

All four players insist they’re not done with chamber music or with one another, just with the relentless travel and logistics. In a typical season, they spend nearly half the year on the road performing and rehearsing and keeping track of a whirl of visas, plane tickets for five (the extra seat is for the cello), taxes paid in a dozen countries, contracts, scheduling, program notes, interviews, and so on.

The Emerson has inspired many superb young quartets, but it may be the last of the old-style brand-name ensembles, blessed with a long-term recording contract and exceptional stability. (Drucker and Setzer co-founded the group in 1976; violist Lawrence Dutton joined in ’77, cellist David Finckel in ’79. That was it until Paul Watkins replaced Finckel in 2013.) They have taken an encyclopedic approach, playing the complete quartets of Beethoven, Bartók, and Shostakovich, sometimes in marathon concerts. “I was in my 20s when the Bartók recording came out” in 1988, says Watkins, who is younger than his colleagues. “I remember being blown away by the virtuosity and energy and skill and power.”

The cost of producing that intensity rises inexorably. “I’m tired of walking out onstage and feeling like I have to prove myself each time,” Setzer says. “We’ve proven ourselves, for better or worse.” On top of that, “the pandemic helped us to imagine what life would be like without the Emerson,” adds Dutton. And because they’re still finishing one another’s thoughts, Setzer chimes in: “Even though all we wanted was to play a lot of concerts, being home was … good.”

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The Emerson String Quartet’s Coda Begins