emerson string quartet

Eugene Drucker interview: Emerson to Shakespeare to Bach

Emerson Quartet violinist talks about the ensemble’s origins, his novel, his original compositions, and the differences between playing first and second violin

by ALICE HARDESTY

Editor’s note: ArtsWatch’s Alice Hardesty conducted this 2010 interview with Eugene Drucker, co-founding violinist of 2017 Chamber Music Northwest Artists in Residence Emerson String Quartet, during the ensemble’s appearance at Chamber Music Northwest in 2010. It’s excerpted from a longer version that originally appeared on the website of Chamber Music Concerts in Ashland, but is no longer available. Drucker performed earlier this month at the festival with the quartet and also played his own original music (discussed below) in a July 7 CMNW concert.

Emerson Origins

AH: Let’s talk about your beginnings as a quartet. How did you four come together?

ED: Philip Setzer and I met while we were students at Juilliard. We met at the orchestra, actually, and decided to form a student quartet together, partly because you had to do that for the chamber music requirement, and it felt congenial on a personal basis because we already knew each other. After all, we had the same role model: our teacher, the great violinist Oscar Shumsky. Meanwhile, we were getting coached by members of the Juilliard Quartet, especially Robert Mann — who I think is a Portland native — and also by Felix Galimir, who had formed the Galimir Quartet, which specialized in 20th century music.

Eugene Drucker performed at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

We had various changes of personnel over the first few years, and when we finished school we had to freelance to make a living. But we always had the quartet as a core of our musical experience. Peter Mennin, the president of Juilliard, heard us perform at a church on the East Side. He felt that we had potential and that we should continue to stay together, so during the 1976-1977 season we got a manager and chose a name (we didn’t have a name for the first few years). Since it was the bicentennial year we chose an American name with cultural associations.

AH: And Emerson himself?

ED: Emerson had said some enlightened things about music, but none of us was really an expert in philosophy, so the name was a bit on the arbitrary side. But everyone thinks very highly of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and we knew that he had great influence on the intellectual and cultural life of the United States throughout the 19th century, so it seemed like a good way to celebrate American history.

First and Second

AH: You’re the only quartet I know of, although there must be others, where the violinists trade places between first and second. Why did you decide to do that?

ED: That’s something that Phil and I have been doing since our student days, because we wanted to learn how to play both parts. The demands they impose on the violin are somewhat different, and we wanted to gain those skills. Since we evolved so gradually into a professional group, we never felt that there was any reason to crystallize the roles of first and second violins.

Emerson Quartet are Chamber Music Northwest’s 2017 Artists in Residence. Photo: Tom Emerson.

AH: Can you tell me a bit about the characteristics of each because I think a lot of people who enjoy string quartets don’t really understand their respective roles.

ED: The first violin part is usually more exposed, especially in repertoire like Haydn and Mozart, where there is some integration of melodic material among all the instruments, but the attention is still focused very much on the first violin. Even in later music, where the material might be more equally distributed among all the parts, the first violin is usually the highest part, so it’s going to stand out acoustically. And composers, in conceiving four-part harmony, will give a lot of detail to the top line. It’s a natural way of writing. The first violin will usually give the rhythmic cues when all four instruments are playing together.

Now with the second violin, one of the challenges is that you’re a few feet farther away from the audience and you have to emerge from the texture if you have a solo part. It takes a bit more work. You’re usually in a lower register with regard to your instrument, so it’s a little harder to project the lines. You also have a role of organizing the rhythmic cues for the lower three instruments. The first violin may be playing a long spun melodic line, but the other three instruments may have more rhythmically oriented material and you have to organize that, so then the second violin will be giving cues to the others.

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The Emerson Quartet honors the Haydn-Beethoven link

Chamber Music Northwest's examination of Beethoven continues with the Emerson Quartet

By ANGELA ALLEN

If any group can make us hear how radical and innovative Ludwig van Beethoven’s music is, it’s the Emerson String Quartet, a regular at Chamber Music Northwest. This year marks their 11th season at the summer festival; they’ll be back for more Portland concerts throughout 2016-17.

The group played two of Beethoven’s early string quartets: String Quartet in G Major, Op. 18, No. 2 and String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 18, No. 6. The Beethoven pieces alternated with Joseph Haydn’s quartets from his String Quartet in C Major, Op. 76, No. 3 (“Emperor”)” and String Quartet in E-Flat Major, Op. 76, No. 6.

The Emerson String Quartet at Chamber Music Northwest in 2015/Photo by Tom Emerson

The Emerson String Quartet at Chamber Music Northwest in 2015/Photo by Tom Emerson

The Sunday concert exceeded two hours, not including intermission, at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall in the last of a three-performance program called “Passing the Torch.” The Grammy Award-winners are CMNW’s Artists-in-Residence for the 2016-17 season. Along with CMNW artistic director David Shifrin, they came up with the idea of the centerpiece three-performance Haydn-Beethoven program. The title speaks to the relationship between the older Haydn and Beethoven, and to the festival’s efforts to mentor “protégé” musicians.

Adding fuel to the Emerson program, Beethoven’s quartets have been showcased throughout CMNW’s five-week run this summer.

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