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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

less grand.

"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

Emerson String Quartet, McCarter Theater, 91 University

Place, 609-683-8000. $22 & $25; $10 standing. Monday, April 13,

8 p.m.

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