interview with Emerson String Quartet violinist Philip Setzer

May 22, 2009, 12:42 PM ·

The Emerson String Quartet has played together for 30 years, as of this month. How do four people function together so well, for so long?

Philip SetzerAbout a week before I spoke with Emerson String Quartet violinist Philip Setzer, I heard the quartet give a recital, at the ACE Gallery in Beverly Hills. They couldn't have given me a better overview of their range, with a program that included Mozart's String Quartet No. 22 in Bb major (K. 589); Beethoven Quartet No. 11 in F Minor, Op. 95; Webern's "Bagatelles," Op. 9; and Ravel's String Quartet in F.

Violinists Setzer and Eugene Drucker and violist Lawrence Dutton stood to play, while cellist David Finckel sat on a pedestal, as has been their standard practice since 2002. Somehow it seems right that time would raise these guys to their feet rather than making them sit back.

I enjoyed the well-oiled machine that is the Emerson. They made it look easy: all you need is perfectly well-calibrated pitch, time and volume control, and you'll have a fantastic quartet. As they played the buoyant third movement of the Mozart, I noticed what nice timing they had, "like a clock with a million motors, all going exactly right," I wrote. During the Beethoven I found myself wishing to have two such friendly-looking, attentive and competent partners in the lower strings, "The violist looks like he's having so much fun...I may kidnap him," I observed.

I turned my attention to Setzer and Drucker, who trade off playing first and second violin. Aw, come on, one of them has to be the hot dog here! I looked for signs of jealousy, dominance, dissatisfaction...I gave up. Each seemed perfectly happy sitting first or second. I let my eyes relax. Maybe they both secretly covet the second violin part. Hah! And maybe I'm having a second violinist's fantasy.

Back to the concert, the Webern was a modern collage of effects, a pizzicato here, glissando there, a tremolo sul ponticello; to me it sounded like mice scrambling around, knocking things off tables, disappearing into holes. Not completely my cup of tea, but Ravel, I love, as do many. As they played the Ravel I sensed a collective Beverly Hills kind of vibe: "Wow, this music would be awesome in my new documentary." As a musician, I was impressed with the way they could drive in five during the last movement – what a ride!

Setzer spoke to me in April, from his cell phone, as he drove to SUNY Stony Brook, where he teaches violin. We talked about the Emerson's new CD of works by Czech composers, and about what kinds of things help foster a long and fruitful professional relationship between four people.

Laurie: Tell me a little be about the Emerson's new CD, Intimate Letters. I understand the quartet has been championing these works by Janácek and Martinu for some time; how long have you been playing them?

Philip: We actually played the second (Janácek) quartet first, quite early in our career, so we've been playing that piece for at least 25 years. The first quartet, we learned a few years after that, so that's a newer piece for us – we've been playing it for 20 years! We don't play them every season, but I would say every other season we would probably program one of them.

Laurie: If you played these pieces so early on, you must have been drawn to them early on. What makes these quartets such interesting pieces?

Philip: His language is so unique; I don't know any other composer that you could really compare Janácek to. There are elements of Czech folk music, tunes that sound like something Dvorák or Smetana might have written. But his sense of color and sound, and the way that he uses music to express his passion...It's not that other composers don't do that, but they don't do it in the way that Janácek does. The other thing that's interesting about Janácek is that he was fascinated with speech, the spoken word – the rhythms of it, the pitch of it. I think he was especially curious about the way that the rhythm and pitch of speech changes when you add emotion: when you're speaking softly, or endearingly, or angrily, or passionately. He studied these things throughout his life and imitated that with his music.

When you turn the radio on, when you hear a few seconds, you can tell that it's Janácek; it's very distinctive.

Laurie: I read the liner notes, about "The Kreutzer Sonata," but when I was actually listening to the second quartet, my daughter, who is 11, was listening to it with me. She was making up a narrative to it that obviously had nothing to do with "The Kreutzer Sonata." She was imagining a clown, who was dancing, but someone stepped on his toes, then he couldn't dance any more, then he was was funny to me.

Philip: It's so full of color, it does tease the imagination, for sure. I grew up in Cleveland, my parents played in the Cleveland Orchestra. (Conductor George) Szell didn't do a lot of 20th century music, but one of the pieces he really loved was the Sinfonietta of Janácek. I don't know if you've ever heard it live, but whatever recordings you've heard of it will never do it justice. It has something like nine trumpets in it, and a huge brass section. The prelude music and the way that it ends, sonically, is just overwhelming. It's very primitive, when you're thinking about the melody lines, they're very simple, but then he adds a lot of this color to it, and the way that it's orchestrated, it's extremely moving. It's very emotional music.

Laurie: I was thinking about the concert the Emerson gave in Los Angeles at the ACE Gallery – the Mozart was just so elegant, and then the Beethoven was stormy – it was almost as if you could characterize each composer in one word. I thought, what would be the one word for Janácek, if all of a sudden you switched gears and started playing Janácek? Maybe the word is something like "all over the place;" his music is very mercurial.

Philip: There's something kind of raw about it. You feel like the nerve endings are all exposed. That's what makes it so powerful, even if you don't know exactly what each line means. "The Kreutzer Sonata," the first quartet, does follow the story of The Kreutzer Sonata pretty accurately. The music toward the end, where it just gets faster and faster and wilder and wilder, is related: he's chasing her, and then he kills her. It's a murder scene. You have songs without words, but these are operas without words.

Laurie: To be honest, I liked the Martinu "Three Madrigals" for violin and viola, the other piece on the new CD, an awful lot. I hadn't heard those before.

Philip: It's fun, isn't it? My wife, who is a big music fan, is not a huge fan of Janácek, but she really likes the Martinu pieces. They're beautiful, too, the slow movements are beautiful. You don't hear violin-viola duos all that often, but I think the "Madrigals" are some of Martinu's strongest, his most consistently excellent pieces, from beginning to end.

Laurie: I especially liked the middle movement, where the violin and viola just circle around each other. This piece was written for Lillian and Joseph Fuchs, wasn't it?

Philip: Yes, (ESQ violist Lawrence Dutton) studied with Lillian Fuchs at one point, and (siblings Joseph and Lillian Fuchs) premiered the piece... A little side story: I remember when I was at Aspen, as a student when I was young, I was supposed to meet someone at the music tent, I think we were going to have a rehearsal. I didn't see them, and I sort of walked around. As I was walking past one of the openings in the tent on the side, I heard this yelling going on inside. I thought, what's going on? So I peeked in, and on the stage there were Joe and Lillian Fuchs – I think they were actually performing the "Madrigals" that night on a concert, and they were rehearsing. They were standing, facing each other, nose to nose, and both of them were screaming! (He laughs). They were both about five feet tall, they were like these two little snarly dogs, yelling at each other, it was very funny. I'd be willing to bet you that she ended up winning the argument, too! She was a tough lady.

I can tell you that the Madrigals are very difficult, but Larry and I actually never yelled at each other while we rehearsed.

Laurie: You two play very much in sync in the Martinu piece; do you actually trill exactly together? Is that something you practice?

Philip: For the most part, yes. You're really playing the same rhythms together a lot of the time; you have to follow the same direction or the same way, or it just doesn't match.

Laurie: I get the feeling you've been together so long, you can match the oscillation of your vibratos, the speed of your trills.

Philip: Some of that does happen naturally after enough years. You don't sit there and say, 'Okay now we're going to vibrate together, ready, set, go...' I think it's something you just hear, and you're used to adjusting. It's tricky sometimes. If you are playing down in the lower range of the viola, you would tend to make the vibrato a little bit wider, and a little slower. Many times in Martinu, and more modern kinds of music, where you will play together, the violin will be way up high and the viola, or cello, will be low. You can have a very wide range between the instruments. If you want to be matching vibrato, you have to be careful, as the violinist, that you're not vibrating too fast, and the cello or viola is not vibrating too slow or too wide. There is adjustment that has to be made.

Then there are other places where it sounds fine not to match; in fact, it sounds more interesting sometimes if the person not playing the tune is more relaxed with the vibrato, and then you add the color with the other instruments. Sometimes we do different takes different ways, and then we decide later which sounds better.

Laurie: Aren't there a number of places in the Ravel (String Quartet in F) where the voices were two octaves away, in unison.

Philip: That's a good example. The second theme in the first movement of the Ravel is between viola and violin, and they have to be able to shimmer together so you have to want to match vibrato there.

Laurie: Something I didn't realize until I went to your concert in April, was that you all stand to play, and that (cellist David Finckel) sits on a pedestal. What brought you to the decision to perform this way?

Philip: We've been doing it for seven years now, so it feels quite natural for us. What I wonder now is why we didn't do it before! All those years of battling uncomfortable chairs...We're all pretty tall, and there were never enough piano benches to go around. I used to carry a heavy pillow, a thick, dense pillow that I would put on chairs because I was always uncomfortable unless I was at the back of the chair, which you can't do, it's not good to play sitting back like that. Then if the chair was too low, the bow would hit my knee, so I'd put my leg back and under the chair – there were a lot of reasons why it wasn't good to do that.

So for our 25th anniversary we were playing six Haydn quartets and we decided to try standing up for that. It's so much easier for the first violin part.

The other thing that happened around that time, around 2000, was that we collaborated on a theatre piece called The Noise of Time, about Shostakovich. In that, we moved around. We played standing up and we played by memory the 15th Shostakovich quartet. Our movements were kind of choreographed. That was so liberating – very challenging, but very liberating.

When we got back together after that, we played in Wigmore Hall in London. After we had done this theatre piece in New York, it felt so strange to be sitting there, in this clump in the middle of the stage. It felt very unnatural.

So we tried this Haydn program, and not only was it more natural and more comfortable, but we found that it really sounded better! When you're standing, you're not getting so much of the early deflection of the sound off the floor. It was much clearer; you could really hear everybody's sound. There was more color in the sound, and there were more overtones. It was less confusing, and the basic sound of the group was just more vibrant.

It's just natural for us to do it that way, and so after a few minutes it becomes natural for the observer as well.

Laurie: I enjoyed the way everybody interacted – there is more range of motion when you're standing, at least there can be.

Philip: I think the audience can see better, and they can see your body language better. If you watched a play for two hours, and the actors all just sat there in the same spot, it would be a little boring after a while. Even if what they were doing with their voice was wonderful, you'd want them to get up and move around a little bit!

Laurie: You and Eugene Drucker, the violinists in the Emerson, switch between playing the first and second violin parts. I think every quartet debates what to do about that – or they don't, and then there are lingering feelings about it. Was this the way you structured it from the beginning? And what is your perspective on it now, after doing it for years this way?

Philip: For us, it was a very natural thing to do, even though it had never been done before and a lot of eyebrows were raised. Gene and I started out playing in quartet in 1970, when we were students in our second year at Juilliard. We've been playing together almost 40 years, if you go back to our student days. A lot of student groups switch. It's not even a question of who is better on first; you want to learn to do both. It's part of learning to play in a string quartet.

That's the way we were all the way through Juilliard, and we decided to go with it professionally Basically, he and I just couldn't make a decision. We both wanted to play first, but also we both liked playing second. Both of our fathers had played second violin in string quartets. Gene's dad was in the Busch Quartet for a while, right after the war, and then he went to the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra where he worked for many years; and both my parents were in the Cleveland Orchestra and my dad also played in a string quartet called the Sinfonia Quartet, which was made up of members of the Cleveland Orchestra; he was the second violinist in that quartet. So we had grown up with an appreciation – a genetic appreciation – of the second violin's part. If we had made the decision one way or the other, I think it might not have worked.

I think for some groups, it's natural to switch, and for some groups it's not. It's like with actors, some actors are just better at doing the supporting roles and some are better at doing the lead. 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, usually not in a very good range, usually in the lower range of the violin, often on the D string. You have to figure out a way to project through the texture a little bit.

Viola has its own sound, cello has its own sound, but the "other violin" has to find a way to make its personality known, so it's a very challenging role, and often underrated. Yet the old saying goes, 'A string quartet is only as good as its second violinist.' I think it's very true. Sometimes you don't get noticed as much there, but for some people, that's fine. If I had to pick, if somebody said to me, 'Unfortunately, there's a new law that's just been passed, and you're not allowed to switch in string quartets, you have to choose now, which part would you like to play?' there's no question that I would pick the second part. I enjoy playing first violin, but if I had to give up one, I'd give that up and just really enjoy playing the second part.

Laurie: Well, this is very heartening to hear. I've certainly played a lot of second violin in my life.

Philip: I mean it, too. I'm not being falsely modest about it. There are so many great second violinists in quartets, who've made it an art unto itself.

Laurie: Every part is important.

Philip: Especially when there's only four!

Laurie: What is your schedule like, as a member of a quartet?

Philip: I'm a full professor at Stony Brook. Everybody has other things that they do. David and his wife are the music directors of the Chamber Music Society at Lincoln Center, and they have their summer festival out in California, Music@Menlo, they play a lot of duo concerts together. I'm joining them, playing Schubert trios over the next couple of years, we recorded that, so there are extra performances of that. The quartet plays about 90 concerts a year, plus recordings, plus's not an easy life, to do all these things. Gene Drucker wrote a novel, which has been published by Simon and Shuster; Larry plays in a string trio and also has three kids, and he teaches at Manhattan and Stony Brook. The quartet is in residence at Stony Brook, so we do chamber coachings.

You have to be organized about your time; if you're successful, you're busy. I feel very fortunate to be working, and these days, I have friends who are out of work. I'm lucky to be busy. Sometimes, it's difficult to juggle with your personal life. My wife would, I'm sure like me to be not as busy as I am, but that's sort of the way it is.

Laurie: For those just starting on this path of playing chamber music, what are some of the important habits to form, things to develop, as you are gelling as a quartet?

Philip: Every group is different, every person is different; I can tell you what I did, what we did.

In the beginning, we listened to a lot of recordings, went to a lot of performances, copied a lot of things we liked and avoided a lot of things that we thought were not-so-good. Eventually you stop looking at other people and you start listening to yourself. We had the good fortune of being able to listen to ourselves a lot.

In the beginning of our career we did not have a recording contract for a long time, but we did a lot of performances on the radio. It was when public radio first started and was broadcasting a lot of concerts from around the world. Usually we didn't get paid anything extra to have a concert broadcast, it was extra pressure and all that. But it was our way of getting our name out there without having recordings, and we thought that that was important. We would have to listen to these concerts and approve them. So we ended up listening to a lot of performances of ourselves, and I think that's something that groups don't do enough of. It's tough, it's very tough. It's like looking at yourself in the mirror and – augh! You look at yourself play, and you really listen carefully. It's painful; you hear a lot of stuff you don't like. But you also learn very quickly what sounds good and what doesn't. As a group, it's helpful. It takes the subjective out of it a little bit, if you are able to step back and listen to a performance.

Laurie: Did you listen to yourselves together?

Philip: Sometimes, but usually not. Usually we just passed things around, but sometimes we listened together, especially when we were preparing for a recording later. In fact, we're going to do that tomorrow; we just did a performance of Dvorák Op. 106, the G Major quartet in Houston last night, and it was taped and we were handed a CD of it after the concert for approval. We're going to be recording that Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. We have a rehearsal tomorrow, and I'm sure that we will sit down and listen to it together, with our scores. It will save time, having done that, rather than coming in there and hearing it for the first time. That way, the process will have started already.

The other thing that has helped us a lot has been using machines: each of us individually practicing with tuning machines, agreeing that we're going to tune to A=441, or whatever you agree to. I practice a lot with a drone, so that I'm used to adjusting to another sound. I'll change the tone, depending on the passage or the key of the piece. I practice scales that way, I practice arpeggios that way, I practice double stops, always with a drone on. It drives people crazy, but for me, I'm used to it. And the other guys do that, maybe not as much as I do, but they do it to some extent.

Also, using metronomes helps: agreeing on basic metronome markings for a particular movement. If everybody practices at that tempo, with a metronome, it's not that you're going to play metronomically, but it at least you're starting off somewhere in the same ball park. It helps you avoid situations where you play something, and somebody says, "It was too slow," and "Really? I thought it was too fast," or "It's out of tune, you're sharp," and "No, you're flat..." That kind of thing happens, but the more work you can do individually, the less it happens.

Sometimes we actually rehearse certain passages together with the metronome, and even with the drone. It takes away that subjective, "I know what's wrong with this, and you don't." Which most quartets go through.

Laurie: It makes sense to take that away, because that can cause a lot of contention.

Philip: The less self-righteousness that occurs in a string quartet, the better.

Laurie: Even just the way you say, "That sounds a little bit sharp," can be a deal-breaker.

Philip: I've seen it in my own group. A lot of groups fall apart. A lot of people come and talk to me, and they say, 'We just can't seem to work together.' A lot of it is that it becomes too personal, and not about the music.

Here's another very good piece of advice: in the amount of time that you argue over how you want to do a particular phrase, or even the end of a particular phrase, in say, five minutes of arguing about that, you could have tried it 10 different ways. You could have done each way, talked about it a little bit and tried it several times. Maybe you would have come up with a different solution, or maybe no solution at all. But the process of working that way -- playing different ways, trying it different ways – encourages a certain flexibility. The inability to be flexible can be a problem with groups.

It's not always a question of people not wanting to be flexible, it's that they don't know how to. It almost becomes a kind of technical thing, even though what you're talking about has to do with emotion. If you don't have the technique to be flexible, how do you expect to be flexible? It has to be developed, and you have to experience it, to feel what that's like to bend a phrase in a way that you don't feel. You still have to do it – and make it convincing. That's technique, to some extent.

Laurie: I think you're speaking to what I was going to ask next, which is, how on Earth has the Emerson String Quartet stayed together 30 years?

Philip: It's sort of a standard response, but it's very true: you have to keep a sense of humor. If you lose that, if you get too serious for too long, forget it. I don't care how good you are; if you don't have a sense of humor, and you can't tease each other and take some ribbing from the other people, you're just not going to make it.

Laurie: Just watching the quartet perform, everybody seemed happy.

Philip: This year, this month, it's 30 years since David joined. That's 30 years with the same people. We have our tensions, but on the whole, we get along very well. We have a good time, we laugh a lot. We take ourselves seriously, but not past a certain point. We don't allow each other to take ourselves too seriously. Whereas, the music is always taken seriously. The greater the music, the more serious we take it. That's the key: where your priorities are, and how you spend your energy, both negative and positive, how you channel that.

UPDATE: If you would like to connect with Philip Setzer and the Emerson String Quartet, you can find them on Twitter @EmersonQuartet and on Facebook,


May 22, 2009 at 10:11 PM ·

Thanks Laurie! Your interviews are always interesting!


May 23, 2009 at 06:56 PM ·

Interresting comment about playing with a drone. Doing that, at the advice of my superb teacher, changed my playing forever for the better.

May 24, 2009 at 01:25 AM ·

I always like to play the first but now I'm reconsidering. Thanks Laurie for doing such a good interview again!

May 25, 2009 at 09:10 PM ·

Thanks Laurie, I really enjoyed reading your interview. And the Emerson Quartet is quite a fine quartet, I hope I'll be able to listen to them in a concert room someday.

May 27, 2009 at 03:09 PM ·

Intriguing interview.....enjoyable...informative.....However, as it is illegal to drive and use a cell phone in NYS, and this was apparently the mode of communication, aiding-and-abetting, misdemeanor, and other words come to mind.....

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