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This article by Elaine Strauss was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
April 8, 1998. All rights reserved.
The Emerson: Over the Hump
Violinist Eugene Drucker of the Emerson String Quartet
is so much a part of the ensemble that at almost every turn he answers
questions by acting as spokesman for the group, rather than singling
out his own reactions. When the moment comes for him to take the lead
in performance, he sculpts his role aggressively. However, as a member
of the frictionless string quartet, Drucker operates from a sense
of the whole even during a solo telephone interview from his New York
Drucker knows that it takes time for four highly competent instrumentalists
to coalesce into a single musical unit with a distinct collective
personality. "The first five years of the existence of a quartet
constitute a hump that has to be gotten over," Drucker observes.
"There’s a kind of centrifugal force at work. Aside from all the
purely professional problems, you have to get used to each other —
to try not to stereotype each other." More than 20 years after
its founding, the members of the Emerson Quartet are comfortable with
each other both musically and personally. Their comfort shows in the
fistful of Grammys they have collected and in the high jinks with
which they tease each other and bait audiences.
The Emerson plays at McCarter Theater on Monday, April 13, at 8 p.m.
The program consists of Beethoven’s last string quartet, his Opus
135, Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 9, and Tchaikovsky’s quartet No. 1.
The members of the Emerson String Quartet are violinists Drucker and
Philip Setzer, violist Lawrence Dutton, and cellist David Finckel.
In a departure from the usual string quartet procedure, where one
violinist consistently plays first violin, the leading part, and the
other consistently plays second violin, a supporting role, Drucker
and Setzer alternate positions. They tend to take for granted their
ability to handle first violin parts with elan, and consider their
ability to handle the second violin parts with skill the distinguishing
feature of their ensemble.
The McCarter program is a modification of the Emerson’s current pattern
of concertizing in New York’s Alice Tully Hall, where, in eight concerts
over a two-year period, the quartet is performing all the Beethoven
quartets, along with selected 20th-century pieces that shed light
on the Beethoven cycle. The series follows on the heels of an earlier
series at New York’s 92nd Street "Y" where the quartet paired
late Beethoven and Shostakovich.
"We feel that there is a general affinity between Shostakovich
and Beethoven," Drucker says. "Shostakovich became more deeply
immersed in studying Beethoven as his musical career went on."
He singles out musical references to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata
in Shostakovich’s viola sonata, and his 15th quartet. But the parallels
are not limited to these details.
"The seriousness of late Beethoven finds a 20th-century echo in
Shostakovich’s work," Drucker says, pointing out that Shostakovich’s
15 string quartets, are a body of work comparable in their bulk to
Beethoven’s cycle of 16 quartets almost two centuries earlier. Another
parallel, says Drucker, is the use of the string quartet by both composers
to experiment musically. Beethoven reached new heights of creativity
in his late quartets, says Drucker. "He went further in his late
quartets than in his symphonies, in exploring new structural possibilities.
And in terms of dissonance, nobody went further than Beethoven in
his `Grosse Fuga.’
"While Beethoven was guided by his creative impulses, it was the
threat of repression in the Soviet Union that molded Shostakovich’s
compositional output," Drucker says. "Shostakovich was under
enormous political scrutiny for his large-scale works. But with the
quartets he could carve out a little more inner space. In them he
was able to get a little more experimental intellectually and emotionally.
Like Beethoven he composed one way in his symphonies, and another
way in his quartets."
Alienation is yet another feature that Shostakovich
and Beethoven share, says Drucker. "Because of his deafness, Beethoven
has a sense of isolation in his late works," he says. "With
Shostakovich it was political isolation."
Impiously, Drucker debunks one of the high-flown explanations of a
noteworthy passage in the opus 135 scheduled for McCarter. Commonly,
interpreters see the titanic composer struggling against his destiny
and waxing philosophical in a notable three-note phrase where Beethoven
musically asks the question "Must it be?" ("Muss es sein?")
and then answers it with the same phrase turned inside out to assert
"It must be." ("Es muss sein.") Drucker thinks that
Beethoven here deals not with the meaning of life, but confronts something
"It’s most commonly treated as philosophical probing," he
says of the three-note motive, "but it’s probably more mundane."
Just before the performance of a Beethoven quartet at the home of
a Viennese patron, Drucker says, the host inquired of Beethoven whether
the fee had to be paid beforehand. "It must be," replied Beethoven.
Somehow, the question and answer stuck in the composer’s mind, and
when he came to write his last quartet, he turned it into music.
Drucker includes this interpretation in program notes he wrote in
connection with Deutsche Grammophon’s recent release of the Emerson’s
reading of the complete Beethoven cycle in a seven-CD set, which,
in February, won them their fourth Grammy award. Drucker’s notes —
he calls them "unscholarly" — accompany a 77-minute long
single CD containing selected movements from the complete cycle, and
marketed under the title "The Key to the Quartets." In his
unscholarly commentary Drucker elicits the huge range of Beethoven’s
writing, referring to the movements variously as "stormy,"
"wispy," "transparent," "tender," "tightly
coiled," "intimate," and "somber," to select a
few of his adjectives.
The single CD, says Drucker, "is an attempt to draw in an audience
not exposed to chamber music and show that the quartets have blood
and guts and vivid emotional stuff." The target audience, he says
is "people who knew something about Beethoven, but know little
about the string quartets."
For those committed to buying the seven CD set, and able to mobilize
themselves quickly, Drucker reveals, there was a bonus. The first
1,000 purchasers of the complete cycle received an additional CD with
a seven-minute radio feature and comments from the quartet. The collector’s-item
CD was originally prepared for radio stations wishing to air a feature
about the Emerson’s Beethoven cycle.
Drucker, 45, comes from a musical family. His father, Ernest Drucker,
played second violin in the renowned Busch Quartet from 1945 to 1947,
and then occupied a top chair in the Metropolitan Opera orchestra
until 1984. His mother was a pianist, but did not play professionally.
Eugene Drucker carries on the tradition in his own family. His wife,
Roberta Cooper, is a freelance cellist. Their son Julian, age 4, plays
no instrument yet, his father reports, but is an avid spectator of
Mozart operas on video.
Drucker started piano at age 5, then switched to violin at 8. By the
time he was 10, he played in the student orchestra at the Chautauqua
Music Festival, where his parents summered. At 13, he began his studies
with the Juilliard School’s Oscar Shumsky. He continued to study with
Shumsky while he earned a bachelor’s in English literature at Columbia.
Emerson violinist Philip Setzer was also a member of Shumsky’s class.
Drucker and Setzer both won medals at the Queen Elizabeth International
Competition in Brussels in 1976, the same year they decided to found
the Emerson String Quartet. It is named, not for a musician, but for
the American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. The quartet attracted
national attention early by presenting the six Bartok quartets in
a single evening for their Carnegie Hall debut in 1988. The daring
bit of programming was reflected in a recording of the Bartok cycle
that won a Grammy Award and Gramophone Magazine’s Record of the Year
award in 1990. The quartet consistently presents the works of contemporary
composers, along with the classics.
Coming of age, the Emerson has many times performed
the Beethoven string quartet cycle. They like to program the cycle
chronologically, and to play all 16 of the quartets within the space
of eight days. "It’s intense, but rewarding," Drucker says.
"If you feel that the same audience has been with you the whole
time, you feel that you are living through Beethoven’s development
together. Everybody goes through an amazing emotional experience."
The Emerson started recording the Beethoven cycle early in 1994, and
finished in the spring of 1996, a relatively short time for the gargantuan
task. One of the problems of recording the cycle over a long period
of time is that by the time the last piece has been recorded, the
artists may change their minds about the interpretation of the first
pieces that have been played.
"We initially hoped to record in little more than a year, but
it turned out to be unfeasible," Drucker says. "When you’re
recording, you’re not spending your whole time recording. You’re doing
other things at the same time, like giving concerts." In the summer
of 1994, during the period when the Emerson was recording the Beethoven
cycle, they tucked in the recording of five Shostakovich quartets,
a down-payment on an album containing all of Shostakovich’s string
quartets scheduled for release in the year 2000.
Drucker says recording Shostakovich is the Emerson’s main future
project. The five Shostakovich quartets already recorded were finished
"live," in Aspen. Five more are scheduled for recording in
the this summer, and the final five, in 1999. Drucker explains that
"live" means recording two performances and a dress rehearsal.
"You can mix and match," he says. "You don’t make 100
splices in each movement, but try to maintain the spirit of a live
performance. It’s different from studio recording. Still, with the
two performances and dress rehearsal, you give yourself a safety net."
It was at Aspen that the Emerson pulled off a typical prank. Testing
out the new Harris Concert Hall in 1993 before an audience concerned
about the acoustics of the space, the quartet walked on stage in black
tie and took their places. At the first sound of a Mozart Quartet,
the capabilities of the space would become clear. The quartet exchanged
glances and drew their bows. There was no sound at all. The shocked
audience realized, after the eternity of a few terrified seconds,
that the players were drawing their bows an inch above their instruments,
and tension turned to laughter.
The quartet happily goes in for sight gags when they are on camera.
One of their publicity shots shows them, in sunglasses, with their
instrument cases. An article in Bon Appetit finds them with instruments
amid a selection of salamis, cheeses, and coffee beans at New York’s
delicatessen mecca, Zabar’s. After receiving honorary degrees from
Middlebury College in Vermont in 1995, they produced the sunglasses
again to accessorize their mortarboards as a New York Times photographer
recorded the moment.
An activist mentality pervades the quartet and it performs benefit
performances for various causes, among them nuclear disarmament, the
fight against AIDS, world hunger, and children’s diseases. The Emerson
has appeared for the Princeton-based Coalition for Peace Action. The
day after their McCarter appearance it returns to Princeton, along
with Yefim Bronfman, Joseph Kalichstein, and Cho-Liang Lin, for an
invitation-only Richardson performance to benefit the Gift of Life
Foundation, which helps fight leukemia by recruiting bone marrow donors.
At age 22, this quartet has not outgrown its interest in shaping the
society in which its members live. Its approaching venerability has
left its basic approach to music and life as fresh as ever. But as
time moves on, it has tweaked some of its scheduling. Says Drucker:
"We just try to live life sanely. We all have families now and
we try to structure our touring so we have time at home."
— Elaine Strauss
Place, 609-683-8000. $22 & $25; $10 standing. Monday, April 13,
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