The award-winning Emerson Quartet tries to make sure that music feels alive, that in the moment of performance, the group engages with each other and with the audience in the communal experience of these seminal works as well as with new music that has arisen from the great tradition.
Though constantly being admonished by critics and observers to demonstrate the “relevance” to contemporary culture, much of the music the group plays was experimental when it was first written. Emerson Quartet tries to convey a spirit of discovery to audiences, as well as a sense of privilege that training has equipped to interpret some of the greatest works of art in the Western canon.
Emerson Quartet likes to take a different approach to classical music, and has been involved with two projects combining theater and music, as well as open to suggestions of interesting collaborations that might take the group out of its “comfort zone.”
“We feel that unusual and unconventional projects are laudable and healthy, as long as they are pursued with integrity and not simply out of a thirst for publicity,” said violinist Eugene Drucker.
Shostakovich and The Black Monk: A Russian Fantasy
A new theatrical production, Shostakovich and The Black Monk: A Russian Fantasy, was co-created by the acclaimed theater director James Glossman and the Quartet’s violinist, Philip Setzer. In a bold intersection of chamber music and theater starring David Strathairn, Len Cariou, Jay O. Sanders, and Sean Astin with the Emerson String Quartet, the audiences witness the trials of Dmitri Shostakovich’s 40-year obsessive quest to create an opera based on Anton Chekhov’s mystical tale The Black Monk.
The music/theater hybrid, co-commissioned by the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival, Princeton University and Tanglewood Music Festival, has been presented at the Ravinia Music Festival, Wolf Trap, and in Seoul, South Korea. In spring 2019, the quartet will reprise this work at Stony Brook University and the Orange County Performing Arts Center.
“All ideas that we've had about interweaving the music we perform with theater have developed out of the music itself,” said Philip Setzer.
From the first time he began studying and performing the string quartets of Shostakovich, he began to see and feel them as plays with four characters. Also, the more Philip read about Shostakovich's life and his love of Russian literature, he understood that Shostakovich was drawing on his heroes — especially Chekhov, Gorky and Pushkin — for inspiration. The next step was an organic one of reaching out to directors and writers to make something of this.
What the Emerson Quartet does is similar in many ways to what a group of actors does. The group tries to understand what the composer/writer intended — the big picture and the details, including timing, cadence, dynamics, pacing, with constant exploring and experimenting.
“Like any creative endeavor, if it's done from the heart as much as from the brain — and for the ‘right’ reasons — it can be fascinating, rewarding and fun,” Philip said.
“Emerson Quartet sound”
The Emerson Quartet tries to be true to the essence of what it perceives as each composer’s style and the emotional atmosphere of each piece.
“Maybe there was an ‘Emerson Quartet sound,’ but I hope that we varied it as we adapted to the constantly shifting aesthetic world of two and a half centuries of string quartet writing,” Eugene Drucker said.
This is part of the advice the group gives prospective musicians; to determine their strongest musical affinities, carve out a recognizable artistic identity and convey a love for the music, both in publicity materials and in concerts. The arts and arts education should not be considered a luxury, and should not be relegated to the bottom of the list of priorities.
“The arts are vital to the emotional health of any society, and should not be graded purely on their commercial potential,” Eugene said.
Learn more about the Emerson Quartet on its website.