Emerson String Quartet returns to Aspen one final time in its last tour after 47 years together

Kimberly Nicoletti
Special to The Aspen Times
Emerson String Quartet: Eugene Drucker, violin; Philip Setzer-violin; Larry Dutton, viola; Paul Watkins, cello.
Courtesy photo

Emerson String Quartet returns to perform its last on the same stage they inaugurated in 1993: Harris Concert Hall.

The New York City-based quartet formed in 1976 and since then has released more than 30 acclaimed recordings and won nine Grammys, three Gramophone Awards, the Avery Fisher Prize, and Musical America’s Ensemble of the Year award. On Tuesday, it performs a quincentennial program, including George Walker’s “Lyric for Strings,” Ravel’s “String Quartet in F major,” Shostakovich’s “String Quartet No. 12 in D-flat major, op. 133,” and Beethoven’s “String Quartet in E minor, op. 59, no. 2, Razumovsky.”

Walker’s piece begins the program. Violinist Philip Setzer lived near him, the first Black composer to win a Pulitzer Prize, and enjoyed a number of phone conversations before his passing in 2018 at age 96.

“It’s a gorgeous piece of music,” Setzer said.

The quartet’s extensive discography includes the complete string quartets of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Bartok, Webern, and Shostakovich — the latter of which has been a big part of the group’s career and isn’t often played by quartets. Emerson String Quartet’s live recording in Aspen in the 1990s of Shostakovich’s compositions earned them two Grammys, and they’ve also won a Grammy for their Beethoven set.

Setzer describes Beethoven’s “op. 52” as a wonderful final piece to play, akin to an actor performing Shakespeare in his or her final opportunity to act.

“(And) Ravel we’ve done our whole career,” he said. “It’s a great piece to do anytime, especially in the summer. It feels like nature definitely influenced him in the feeling of it.”

Emerson String Quartet, named after American poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, has a long history with Aspen Music Festival and School, dating back to when Setzer attended in 1968 as a student. He recalls only one paved road in Aspen — Main Street — resulting in “dust everywhere,” including all over the fingerboard of his violin. But the rest of his memories of AMFS shine bright to this day.

“It was a wonderful summer, and I definitely wanted to go back,” he said.

And, indeed, the quartet has been a fixture of the festival since its first professional appearance at the AMFS in 1983.

Their humor particularly came out when festival organizers asked them to play the first notes in Harris Hall, before even the seats had been installed. The quartet showed up on stage, with festival board of directors and members waiting with bated breath. But just as they were about to walk onstage, then-celloist David Finckel hatched a prank to start the Mozart piece with their bows a quarter-of-an-inch off the strings. Sure enough, the quartet took the stage, looked out to the small, elite audience and saw expectant faces, and started moving their bows, mimicking playing — with absolutely no sound.

“You could see everyone’s expression going from expectation to absolute horror and then realizing it was a joke,” Setzer said, adding the quartet then played with their bows on the strings, “and it sounded beautiful.”

The quartet’s farewell tour, which began last fall and includes performances in major concert halls across the United States and Europe, has been bittersweet.

“One of the hardest things about this is playing certain pieces for the last time — those are the friends I feel most strongly about saying goodbye to: the pieces,” he said.

Fortunately, the quartet won’t be saying goodbye to each other; they will maintain their status as the quartet-in-residence at Stony Brook University. Still, saying goodbye to performing the pieces has been moving.

“It’s always powerful, especially when you know it’s the last time you’re going to play it. But I try to look forward instead of backward,” Setzer said, adding that he actually looks forward to teaching pieces like Beethoven’s and “getting emotional in the same places.”

The musicians had planned to retire earlier, but they didn’t want to disband during the pandemic.

“So, happily, we decided to stay together for a couple more years. It gives us a chance to travel around and say goodbye to friends,” he said. “We wanted to stop when we felt we’re still playing well.”

The difficult of traveling, with delays and cancellations causing them to fly to concerts a day early, also impacted the decision. The individual members — Eugene Drucker, Setzer, Lawrence Dutton, and Paul Watkins — all run various festivals, in addition to mentoring young ensembles through the Emerson String Quartet Institute at Stony Brook University and performing individually.

“I’m looking forward to focusing on teaching instead of running back and forth,” Setzer said.

So, this will be the last time they grace Aspen with their music.

“It will be an emotional performance,” said Laura Smith, AMFS vice president for marketing and communications.

“We’ve had a long relationship with Aspen,” Setzer said, “and it’s going to be particularly sad to play there for the last time, but we’re looking forward to it.”

If you go…

What: Emerson String Quartet

When: 6 p.m., Tuesday, Aug. 15

Where: Harris Concert Hall

Tickets: $75, $95

More info:

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