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A Final Farewell to the Emerson String Quartet

Emerson String Quartet at the Norfolk Festival

On Friday, August 4, 2023, the Emerson String Quartet took their final bow together on the stage of the Music Shed. After nearly forty years as one of the world’s most renowned string quartets, the chamber ensemble disbanded after performing their final concert at Lincoln Center on October 22.

For ten of those remarkably successful forty years, the Emerson was part of the Norfolk Festival: coaching emerging musicians, collaborating with esteemed faculty, and performing to packed  audiences.

 “This is one of the places we really enjoy coming to during the summer. It’s an idyllic spot,” violinist Eugene Drucker says of the Festival. “I’ve always been impressed by the level of talent here among the students.”

And indeed, the Quartet quickly became widely beloved by the Festival’s patrons and fellows alike. Yet their time at Norfolk is only one piece of the Emerson’s illustrious and varied career. They’ve truly done it all: touring the world, collaborating with world-famous artists, and recording several award-winning albums. Individually, Emerson members have achieved quite a lot as well: Drucker himself is a composer and an author of two published novels. His books as well as his compositions, with works set to poems by Denise Levertov, interweave text and music. For Drucker, there’s a “cross-fertilization” between these two disciplines, even in ways that can’t be easily articulated. When asked about the value of pursuing both writing and music, Drucker responds: “there’s an enrichment of your involvement with one field because of what you do in the other field, and vice versa.”

As an ensemble, the Emerson also has pursued several extra-musical projects that have allowed them to collaborate with different disciplines. This, among their other milestones, makes for a long and impressive Quartet history. Although it’s a career far too expansive to fit into a few paragraphs, Eugene Drucker highlights a few of the Emerson’s most rewarding projects and collaborations.

One such project occurred in 1981, during the centenary celebration of Béla Bartók’s birth, where for the first time, the Emerson performed a Bartók marathon: all six of the composer’s quartets presented chronologically in a single concert, which Drucker considers an “immersive experience” for the audience.

“The audience gets a sort of encapsulated view of Bartók’s trajectory as a composer. It’s almost like a life story told through one of the most important genres in which he was composing music, spanning from 1908-1939,” Drucker explains.

This acclaimed marathon was one of Quartet’s first major achievements, yet it certainly wouldn’t be the last. In 1987, the group signed their first major recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon. They began touring Europe in 1983, then in Asia in 1985, and eventually Australia in 1987. Ever since then, they maintained a significant presence abroad and continued embarking on several tours each season. In 1990, the Emerson won their first GRAMMY Award for their album of Bartók’s six string quartets. They would subsequently go on to win eight more GRAMMYs, including a few for their recordings of all fifteen Shostakovich string quartets.

The Emerson would soon become engaged in many unique collaborations, including a theatrical production centered on Shostakovich and even a collaboration with renowned physicist Brian Greene. Others include musical collaborations with world-famous vocalists such as Renée Fleming and Barbara Hannigan. For Drucker, working with singers has been an immense privilege, as it has given him a firmer grasp on how to imitate the human voice on violin.

 “All of these performances where we can augment our normal concert work has been interesting to us. This does not mean that our main thrust has not been just appearing on stage…but you can’t forget an experience…where you feel inspired, transcending the boundaries of the typical genre in which you function, and working with extremely talented people.”

Their first theatrical production, The Noise of Time, exemplifies this. A play honoring the life and creative legacy of Shostakovich, directed by Simon McBurney, it centers on the performance of the composer’s fifteenth quartet, which Drucker describes as a somber piece composed of six slow movements. Departing from typical performance standards, the production required the Emerson to adapt to unique playing conditions. For instance, the dim lighting forced them to memorize the entire piece a feat they had yet to attempt  and movement was integrated into their performance.

“We had these four actors moving between us, responding in various ways to the music we were playing, and we moved on the stage. Even our cellist moved to some extent. For the second half…we were on a platform that was moving very gradually toward the front of the stage, and the lights were practically extinguished by the end. It had a very powerful effect on the audience,” Drucker says.

This experience continued to have a powerful effect on the Emerson throughout their career, influencing the way they performed and their interpretation of Shostakovich’s fifteenth quartet.

Indeed, this experience and numerous others have shaped the Emerson. It’s no wonder that after forty years, a group of their caliber developed a special synergy. It’s something Drucker will miss most after the quartet disbands.

“[I’ll miss] the way we can put things together quickly…we’ve developed a sort of shorthand in rehearsing and performing. You develop a way of working together. We know each other very well. That is going to change.”

Of course, simply because the Quartet had disbanded, doesn’t mean its members won’t continue to work together. Although no member is exactly sure what their post-Emerson career will look like, it is filled with potential: as Drucker says, “I don’t want to say [the future is] wide open for all four of us, but it still has possibilities for us as soloists.” Their residency continues at SUNY Stony Brook, as will the string institute and concert series that comes with the residency. Each member will continue to appear as soloists and chamber performers, perhaps performing together as duos and trios.

Although fans are sad to see them go, their decades of inspiring performances will surely live on in the memories of those privileged enough to hear them. And although we must say farewell to the Emerson String Quartet, that does not mean we must part completely with the group. As Eugene Drucker is quick to assert: “the Quartet is disbanding, but we are not retiring.” The world is wide for these four musicians, and there is no question that they will continue to make their mark on the world of classical music and beyond.