The Emerson String Quartet varies the patterns for its concert programs. Sometimes they feature the works of a single composer; they have given all-Beethoven, all-Haydn, and all-Shostakovich programs. Sometimes they target composers that they wish to link musically, as they did in a “Beethoven and the 20th Century” series. Sometimes they fashion a program around an invited collaborator.
The quartet’s Tuesday, March 29, concert at McCarter is such a program, with guest pianist Jeffrey Kahane, the music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. Interviewed on his cell phone as he drove from his Westchester home to Stony Brook, Long Island, the violist of the quartet, Lawrence Dutton, says, “When there is a guest we have to figure out what they would like to play.”
First, Johannes Brahms’ Piano Quintet, Op. 34, was selected for the Princeton program, then the quartet decided to precede it with pieces from surrounding centuries: Ludwig van Beethoven’s Quartet Op. 18 No. 3 (1798) and Dmitri Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 2, Op. 68 (1944). Dutton points out a mix-and-match quality to the choice. “It’s early Beethoven and early Shostakovich; but the two composers are from different periods.”
He says the quartet always looks forward to collaborating with other musicians. “It’s always fun to play with people outside the quartet. We embrace what the new person brings to the group. It’s always refreshing. You can learn so much from other people.”
Dutton’s comments reflect the novelty that such collaborations bring. “Playing in the quartet, we have developed a certain number of ideas,” he says. “It’s good to find out what someone else thinks. We’ve played the Brahms Quintet perhaps 200 times. When Kahane comes in and has a new idea, that’s great. We say ‘Yes. Let’s do that.’ Having a fixed idea is death.”
The Emerson is unique in switching first and second violin parts between its two violinists, Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer. Violist Dutton and cellist David Finckel alternate with no one. In the Princeton program Setzer plays first violin in the Beethoven and Drucker plays first violin in the Shostakovich.
“Does it matter who plays first violin in the quartet?” I ask Dutton. “Not to me,” he says. “It’s two different string quartets, depending on who’s playing first, and they’re both OK.”
From the time they founded the quartet in 1976 Drucker and Setzer have shared the violin parts. They have both said that the unusual aspect of their arrangement is not that they both handle the more flamboyant first violin parts well, but that they both understand how to take on the more supportive second violin role.
Unconventionality is, well, conventional to the Emerson String Quartet. In addition to sharing the violin parts, the quartet have made themselves unique among string quartets since 2000, by having its two violinists and violist stand while they perform. They first tried out the practice in “The Noise of Time,” a multi-media presentation of Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 15 in conjunction with Simon McBurney’s Theatre du Complicite. The performance-art piece explored Shostakovich’s life through film, choreography, and taped readings before moving onto the musical performance. The piece will be performed this summer in Paris and Moscow.
In 2002 the Emersons became the quartet-in-residence at New York State’s Stony Brook University on Long Island. They had previously been in residence at Hartt University in Hartford, Connecticut, for 21 years. “Stony Brook has always had a very good music department, with great string teachers and great wind teachers,” Dutton says. “Gil Kalish [the pianist] headhunted us away from Hartt.” The quartet has established a chamber music festival at Stony Brook, which takes place the first weekend of May and highlights Stony Brook students. Individual members of the quartet occasionally participate in the student ensembles.
Each member of the quartet has a specific non-performing task. Violinist Setzer is the initiator of programming decisions. Violinist Drucker handles program notes. Cellist Finckel is the recording guru. And Dutton takes care of financial affairs. “I do the books, pay the salaries, pay bills and taxes, and keep it all organized for everybody,” Dutton says. “I’m the accountant. All the extra jobs are a large part of being in the quartet. Everybody works pretty hard. We try to split up the interviews.”
The day after our interview Dutton was slated to meet with Stony Brook’s dean for fine arts to discuss establishing a foundation for Emerson Quartet projects under the umbrella of the university. The foundation would facilitate projects such as staging teaching seminars in the United States and Europe, making audio and video recordings, and would enable individuals to contribute tax-free to the quartet.
The youngest member of the quartet, Dutton, 50, was born in Wantagh, Long Island. His father worked in a bank; his mother held secretarial jobs. His non-musical background is exceptional in the quartet, whose other members come from families of professional musicians. Dutton started violin at age eight with group lessons on a rented violin. When he was 12, Margaret Pardee, one of three assistants to Juilliard’s Ivan Galamian, accepted him into her class. Following her advice, he turned to the viola during his last year of high school.
“I was a good violin player,” says Dutton, who is more than six feet tall. “Because I was big, Pardee suggested that I try viola. I started playing viola in chamber music. I liked the viola’s sound, its richness, and timbre. It was a natural thing for me. I just really embraced the viola and never looked back.”
Dutton attended Rochester’s Eastman School of Music, and then studied with violist Lillian Fuchs at Juilliard. When he was 22, the Emerson String Quartet selected Dutton from among 23 candidates for their viola opening.
“Integration” is the word Dutton uses for the role of the viola in a string quartet. “Sometimes it acts as an inner voice, sometimes it is a solo instrument, sometimes it plays the bass line. That’s what a string quartet is about. The violist functions in many different roles.”
Like the other musicians in the quartet, Dutton has both an old instrument and a new one. His Pietro Giovanni Mantegazza viola dates from 1796 in Milan. His Sam Zygmuntowicz viola was completed in September, 2003, in Brooklyn. Asked about the difference between the Mantegazza and the Zygmuntowicz, Dutton shoots back, “About 200 years and $400,000.”
“I love the Zygmuntowicz,” Dutton says. “It’s kind of a copy of my Mantegazza, but it’s more comfortable to play. Its sound quality is superb. Zygmuntowicz measured and analyzed the old instrument. He used it as a basic model and streamlined it. The new instrument is about one-quarter inch shorter than the Mantegazza. It has more slope at the shoulder, where the hand goes to the fingerboard. The shoulder of the Mantegazza is not so comfortable; it goes straight out and feels like a big piece of wood is there. The difference is hardly visible, but it’s enough to make a big difference in how it plays.
“Zygmuntowicz really understood what I wanted to do,” Dutton says. “When I got the finished viola, I wrote him a check, and played the instrument that night in Baltimore. I’ve played it exclusively since then. Now, I can’t comprehend my reluctance. I’ve been playing the Zygmuntowicz for 18 months, and I can’t see myself playing the old viola. I see that playing this instrument will help sustain my career. I won’t be as tired out physically.
“I was the last Emersonian to get a Zygmuntowicz,” he continues. “I didn’t see the need to have one; I was happy playing the Mantegazza for 20 years.” What brought Dutton around was the quartet’s decision to record Felix Mendelssohn’s Octet, doing all the parts themselves instead of with a second string quartet.
The Octet, along with Mendelssohn’s String Quartets, makes up a newly-released Deutsche Grammophon album. To capture all eight voices of the Octet, the Emersonians recorded a track with one set of instruments, and then dubbed in a second track with a second set of instruments. A specially-designed computer using a sophisticated digital format with 28 recording lines was used in the recording.
In addition to the Mendelssohn cycle, the quartet’s large discography includes the complete string quartets of Beethoven, Bartok, Haydn, and Shostakovich. The quartet explored new musical territory in its recording of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “The Art of the Fugue,” which is scored for unspecified musical forces. “The Art of the Fugue” has been performed by solo keyboard instruments and by symphony orchestras. It is a survey of the world of counterpoint, with single fugues, double fugues, triple fugues, and a quadruple fugue; it explores its musical material by recasting it upside down, backwards, in longer note values, and in shorter ones. The piece is a natural for the iPod shuffle, since it need not be heard, either in its entirety, or in a fixed order. In fact, the Emerson String Quartet has performed selections from the monumental work in concert, rather than the entire composition.
A further Emerson experiment is performing by memory. In the darkness of their performance piece, “The Noise of Time,” there was no possibility of seeing scores on music stands. However, they may never play by heart again. “Performing by memory is just too much,” Dutton says. I point out that the Quartetto Italiano performed without music. “It just about killed them,” Dutton says. Even if they abandon performing by memory, the quartet is remains hungry for the new. They pursue freshness. Violist Dutton’s observation about the Brahms Quintet to be performed at McCarter is emblematic of their attitude. “If you decide that you have figured out how to play the Brahms Quintet,” he says, “you better start doing something else.”
Emerson String Quartet, Tuesday, March 29, 8 p.m., McCarter Theater, 91 University Place. The Emerson String Quartet, winners of six Grammy Awards, performs with pianist Jeffrey Kahane, the music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. $33 to $36. 609-258-2787.