Aspen Music Festival celebrates 40 years of the Emerson String Quartet |

Aspen Music Festival celebrates 40 years of the Emerson String Quartet

The Emerson String Quartet will perform Tuesday evening at Harris Concert Hall.
Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

What: Emerson String Quartet

Where: Harris Concert Hall

When: Tuesday, July 19, 7:30 p.m.

How much: $65

Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; Harris Hall box office;

The Emerson String Quartet is celebrating its 40th anniversary with a concert at Harris Concert Hall tonight.

The nine-time Grammy-winning quartet, an institution in the classical-music world, is honoring its past while looking toward the future as it commemorates four decades.

“We all feel extraordinarily fortunate,” said Emerson violinist Philip Setzer, who first came to the Aspen Music Festival and School as a student in 1968 and has returned regularly with the Emerson and other collaborators through the decades. “We were lucky to find each other. We came along at a time when there were not a lot of string quartets trying to make a living as string quartets.”

Their early years coincided with a boom in classical-music recordings, Setzer noted, and the invention of the compact disc. This allowed the group to record and perform extensively from the string quartet repertoire. In honor of Emerson’s anniversary, Deutsche Grammophon has released a 52-disc box set of its complete recordings.

The collected body of work allowed Setzer and the quartet the chance to reflect.

“I look at this box and think, ‘My whole life fits into this little box,’ but then I look through it and I’m like, ‘My god, did we really do all of this?’” he said.

The quartet had its first and only change of personnel four years ago, when cellist David Finckel left the group. Paul Watkins took over his duties in 2013.

“In terms of getting along and all of that, it’s extremely easy and the whole transition was as smooth as it possibly could be,” Setzer said. “He has tremendous respect for David and was thrilled to come into the quartet. We work extremely well together. … It brings a certain excitement, and that excitement is infectious.”

Last year, the quartet released a recording of Alban Berg’s “Lyric Suite,” which will be the centerpiece of its concert today. The album includes the traditional instrumental-only version of the piece as well as one with its soprano vocals (performed by 2016 Aspen Institute artist-in-residence Renee Fleming). Tonight’s concert will showcase the nonvocal version.

“Any time you record something, it’s like the ultimate lesson and ultimate rehearsal,” Setzer said of the quartet’s preparations for today. “It’s so complex in the way it’s written yet at the same time so filled with emotion and extraordinarily, painfully beautiful — especially if you know the story behind it.”

The story behind the “Lyric Suite” is an illicit love affair that inspired it, discovered in the 1970s in Berg’s annotations of the piece.

The Berg will be bookended by Haydn’s String Quartet in D Minor “Fifths” and Brahms’ Second String Quartet — it’s an evening of three heavy compositions spanning three centuries.

“Instead of having a concert where we started with something lighthearted or ended with something more positive, we decided to make the whole program dark,” Setzer said.

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