Lessons in great relationships from a string quartet

America’s Emerson String Quartet has been active for 43 years. Three quarters of the group, violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer and violist Lawrence Dutton, have been playing together since they formed the ensemble in 1976. Cellist Paul Watkins has been part of the group for almost seven years. Few groups could claim such longevity and so many original members.

In 2019, the group returned to Australia for the first time in 19 years with Musica Viva. ABC Classic found out some of the secrets behind this enduring relationship.

Prize individuality, but know how to work together

“One of the really special things about this quartet is that it prizes individuality, as well as losing your own personality in the quartet,” said cellist Paul Watkins. Even in conversation, you can see this at play. Individuality shines, but they still work seamlessly together as dialogue and opinions pass between members.

To value individuality, you also have to accept eccentricities. Watkins quipped that playing together for a long time is “… generally a nice feeling if you can end up putting up with each other’s quirks.” They’ve found ways to do this. Violinist Eugene Drucker explained:

“We have very distinct personalities, also different ways of expressing ourselves verbally, so we have to cut each other some slack.”

Cutting people slack is often easier said than done. How do you do that over more than 40 years?

Have a sense of humor

For Drucker, humour was essential to the way the group functions. It helped to give a healthy distance to the uncertainties and challenges of busy touring life and rehearsals.

“Things don’t always go your way when you’re trying to function at peak level.”

He acknowledged one of his quirks as sometimes coming across as a little formal, which other members will sometimes turn into a joke. “For example, everyone says stuff like ‘Bartok Two’ or ‘Shostakovich Five.’ To me that makes it sound like one of those movies like Rocky II, Rocky III … I always prefer to refer to things as, you know, Bartok’s Fifth Quartet. It’s just a quirk that I have.” Violinist Philip Setzer was quick to jump in “But we forgive him for that.”

Understand how to give and take criticism

For groups at the top of their game like the Emersons, feedback is key to maintaining peak performance. “We’re extremely critical of what we’re doing, about ourselves and about the quartet as a whole,” said Setzer.

It isn’t easy.

“It’s hard to take criticism. And it’s even harder to take criticism from someone who’s been giving you criticism for going on 50 years now with Gene [Drucker] or 40 plus years with Larry [violist Lawrence Dutton], and even seven years with Paul. Because a lot of times it’s the same thing, and you don’t want to hear somebody say, ‘I’ve told you this, I don’t know HOW many times.'”

So how do they manage the criticism? According to Setzer, “We try to focus on the music and what’s not sounding right. And not get into a thing like, ‘why are YOU doing that?'” It’s also important to remember the reasons behind the criticism.

“We are really trying to help each other sound good, and make the quartet sound its best.”

Empathy is also important. “If we’re going through a bad spell ourselves individually … you’re more vulnerable when you get criticism right? …But I do feel with this group that we try to support each other,” said Setzer.

Embrace change

Change can be daunting. When the Emerson Quartet’s cellist of 34 years, David Finckel, decided to leave the group in 2013 to pursue other commitments, the remaining members knew they wanted to keep going. The idea of auditioning someone new after playing together for so long wasn’t an appealing prospect.

But the group was lucky. According to Drucker, they were already aware of Watkins as a cellist, and to invite him to join the group they made: “…basically one phone call, and that’s how it went.”

They’ve embraced the change enthusiastically. Watkins joining the group was a “gift.” “It’s given us a longer lease on life actually,” said Drucker.

Dare to be different (but do it for the right reasons)

In their 43 years, the group has often done things differently. They were one of the first, if not the first, professional quartets to not assign the position of first violin to a single player. When they started, it was remarkable.

As students, Drucker and Setzer were used to switching roles, but at one point, they were told to “make a decision.” According to Setzer, “for us, the decision was to keep doing what we were doing … If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Even one of their early mentors questioned the choice, but the group said, “he came around.”

The group was one of the first to collaborate across art forms during the 1990s. They still push genre boundaries. Last year it was a theatre piece with string quartet, about Shostakovich’s obsession with turning Chekhov’s The Black Monk into an opera. This July they performed, Penelope, a new a monodrama by André Previn, with text by Tom Stoppard.

Penelope was Previn’s last work, and the composition was completed by his editor following Previn’s death in February 2019. The premiere took place at the prestigious Tanglewood festival and featured the star power of soprano Renée Fleming and Hollywood actress Uma Thurman, as well as the Emersons and pianist Simone Dinnerstein. “There was a great deal of intensity leading up to the premiere,” said Drucker.

Despite their history of doing things differently, Setzer noted that they don’t pursue innovation for innovation’s sake. “Anything that maybe we’ve gotten credit for being innovative about came about because of an artistic reason, not because oh like, ‘let’s figure out what can we do that would really make a splash.'”

Written by Janine Marshman

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