The concert by the Emerson String Quartet on Tuesday, October 6, is the first fall musical component of “Memory and the Work of Art,” a community-wide phalanx of programs exploring the role of the arts in shaping cultural memory. The concert, the opening program of Princeton University Concerts series, takes place in Richardson Auditorium on the Princeton campus. Members of the ever-innovative 35-year-old ensemble are Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violins; Lawrence Dutton, viola; and David Finckel, cello. The program includes music by Ludwig van Beethoven, Samuel Barber, and Dmitri Shostakovich.
“Memory and the Work of Art,” which commemorates the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attack on the World Trade Towers, sponsored its first events in the spring. In addition to concerts, the collaborative effort of several area arts organizations is presenting lectures, theatrical performances, art exhibits, including sculpture as well as photography, book discussions, readings, and a variety of special events. Participants include the Princeton Arts Council, the Princeton University Art Museum, McCarter Theater, Princeton’s Lewis Center for the Arts, Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School, the Princeton University Library, the Princeton Public Library, and assorted local musical organizations.
Emerson violinist Philip Setzer, in a phone interview from his South Orange home, explains the thinking behind the Emerson’s program. Setzer is primarily responsible for selecting programs for the ensemble, whose members share the necessary tasks of the quartet. Together with Marna Seltzer, head of Princeton University Concerts, he developed an exemplary sample of translating material from the past into thought-provoking substance for the present.
“We’ll start with Beethoven’s Opus 127, the first of the late Beethoven string quartets,” Setzer says. The piece was written in 1825, two years before the composer’s death. “Normally, Opus 127 would end a program. It came near the end of Beethoven’s life. Beethoven was unhappy, deaf, and sick at the time. He could feel that the end was not far off. A piece written at the end of a composer’s life has to be full of memories. In Beethoven’s case there were a lot of painful, personal memories, all of them profound. And, as always with Beethoven, there were bits of humor.”
“The work, as a whole, takes you on a journey. Especially, the second movement, which is a set of variations. It plumbs the depths. It’s like your whole life passing.
“We’re doing the program chronologically,” Setzer says. “Time moving forward is how we perceive things. We like to perform pieces in chronological order. That’s how we played the six Bartok quartets. And that’s how we do the Beethoven quartet cycle.” To the contrary, many ensembles programming Beethoven’s 16 quartets choose pieces from Beethoven’s early, middle, and late periods for each separate concert.
“Then, we’ll play the Barber ‘Adagio,’” he says. “The orchestral version of it is probably the most famous 20th century piece. It started out as part of a string quartet. We’ll do only the Adagio movement because the rest of the program is so long.
“Unlike the Beethoven Opus 127, this was an early piece for Barber,” Setzer points out, providing an idea to mull over. Barber was born in 1910 and wrote the piece in 1936. Memory comes into play in the piece because it is based on the medieval Phrygian mode. Barber was looking back many centuries when he chose that mode. The Phrygian mode is the scale you get when you play eight white notes on a piano, beginning with the note “F.”
The final piece on the Emerson program is Dmitri Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 5, opening up another stream of memories and their impact. Stalin banned Shostakovich’s music in 1948, and his pieces were not performed in the Soviet Union until after Stalin’s death in 1953.
“Shostakovich wrote very little during that period,” Setzer says. “The Quartet No. 5 was written in 1950 or 1951. Mentally and emotionally, Shostakovich felt that his purpose in life was finished. He didn’t know if what he wrote would ever be performed. He didn’t know that a thaw would follow Stalin’s death and that the piece would be played. Knowing that the quartet was written when Shostakovich was blacklisted, imagine the effect when it was finally played, both on the composer and on the audience. Everyone shared the memory of what had happened — the enormous suffering of World War II, and of the Soviet Stalinist regime.”
Beethoven influenced both Barber and Shostakovich, Setzer points out, bringing to the surface another example of the mechanism of memory.
In addition, Shostakovich’s fifth quartet has special meaning for Setzer. The piece was premiered by the Beethoven Quartet, a Russian ensemble that never came to America. “Dmitri Tsyganov, the first violinist of the Beethoven Quartet, was on the jury of the Queen Elisabeth Competition in 1976, when Gene [Drucker, the other Emerson violinist] and I were the only Americans in the finals,” Setzer says. The Queen Elisabeth Competition takes place in Brussels every three years and is open to musicians who are ready to launch international careers.
“Gene and I became close friends in Brussels, and we got serious about making the quartet that we had played in as students at Juilliard a professional commitment, rather than pursuing solo careers,” Setzer says. The ensemble went into high gear in 1976, after Setzer and Drucker returned from Belgium and named itself after Ralph Waldo Emerson, American poet and philosopher.
Exceptionally among quartets, Setzer and Drucker trade off first and second violin roles. He told Laurie Niles, keeper of the “Violinist.com” blog, “Basically, he and I just couldn’t make a decision. We both wanted to play first, but also we both liked playing second. Playing second violin, you have to be really smart, you have to be able to change gears and go from being an inner-voice accompaniment to suddenly having a solo.”
Exceptionally, also, for the last decade, except for cellist Finckel, the Emersons stand when they perform. “When you’re standing, you’re not getting so much deflection of the sound from the floor,” Setzer told Niles. “It was much clearer. There was more color, and there were more overtones. The basic sound of the group was just more vibrant.”
“We share tasks in the quartet, but when it comes to music, nobody is a leader,” Setzer says. “Musically, it’s a free-for-all. Somebody may be more concerned about structure, intonation, or tempo. It varies from piece to piece.” That lack of rigidity contributes to keeping the quartet fresh despite its age. So does the fact that ensemble members have independent activities outside of the quartet.
“We each do other things,” says Setzer. “It’s important to play with people outside of the quartet. That makes scheduling difficult, but that’s why we’re still vibrant.” Besides playing with the Emersons, Setzer joins Emerson cellist David Finckel and his wife, pianist Wu Han, in performing piano trios.
A large repertoire contributes to keeping the quartet on its toes for its 90 concerts annually. “We don’t offer just a few programs,” Setzer says. “We’re playing about 25 pieces this year. That’s more than most quartets play.” Setzer hasn’t counted the number of pieces. So I tally what I can to check up on him. In the 29 concerts where I track down programs, the ensemble plays 21 pieces. Setzer’s estimate is probably low. Exact repeats of entire programs are rare.
The members of the quartet practice their parts efficiently to lay down a solid foundation from which they diverge in performance in order to play expressively. Setzer uses a metronome and a drone. The metronome gives him a clear grasp of unwavering tempo.
The drone, a device that constantly emits the single pitch selected, helps him keep in mind a foundation pitch for a particular passage. “When I’m practicing, I let the machine sound an important pitch, and I play along while the pitch sounds. When I’m not playing with the machine, I bend my pitch. If I play with other people, or want to match the pitch of a piano, I must constantly work to adjust my pitch to others. To give the illusion of wonderful intonation, you have to adjust before the audience hears it. You have to practice that kind of rapid adjusting. That’s why the drone is useful.”
In October, 2010, the Emersons issued a debut album with Sony Classical, with whom they came to an exclusive agreement in March. The new album contains Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s last three string quartets, the Prussian Quartets, K. 575, K. 589, and K. 590. “We’re very excited about going to Sony,” Setzer says.
“It’s our first recording of these quartets. They were written in 1789 and 1790 for the King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm II, who was a cellist. They have prominent cello parts, often higher than the viola, which plays the bass line. Sometimes the second violin plays the bass line, at a pitch below where the cello plays. They’re spun like very fine lace. The music is quite bare. Often, only two or three instruments play at a time, instead of four. It’s very demanding, and it’s interesting to hear the three quartets together.”
Observed at a master class of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York City, Setzer showed the same resourcefulness and invention that he brings to the Richardson programming, along with a trove of technical mastery. He encouraged members of two student piano trios to experiment.
Try not vibrating on long notes, but only on short ones, he suggested. “That’s a good exercise for keeping the short notes alive.” He also recommended to the string students practice without the bow.
Detecting that one master class violinist’s problem came from insufficient hair on the inner side of the bow, he lent her his own bow. The difference was audible.
At one moment, he pointed to an empty space between the players, and said, “You have to be focused here. Look away from the music, and look at each other. We all listen a little bit with our eyes. You have to be a bit of an actor.”
Keep your eyes, as well as your ears, on Setzer during the Emerson performance. And do the same for Drucker, Dutton, and Finckel. They understand each other.
Concert Classics Series, Princeton University Concerts, Richardson Auditorium. Thursday, October 6, 8 p.m. Emerson String Quartet with works of Beethoven, Barber, and Shostakovich. Pre-concert lecture by Princeton professor Scott Burnham, a Beethoven expert, at 7 p.m., free to ticketholders. $20 to $40. 609-258-9220 princetonuniversityconcerts.org.