The Art of Survival

The Emerson String Quartet: from left, Lawrence Dutton, Eugene Drucker, Philip Setzer, and David Finckel.Photo: Andrew Eccles

A few days into the new year, four musicians gather in an Upper West Side apartment to play through a Haydn string quartet. The cellist spears the kilim with his end pin, gouging the parquet beneath. That’s okay: It’s his apartment, and it’s accustomed to the abuse. The piece (Op. 64, No. 3) is new to the men, but it doesn’t sound that way. The notes are in place, exuding warmth and vinegary wit, and the musicians end the first movement with upraised bows and a joint laugh. Within twenty minutes, they have sanded off splinters of uncertainty, sharpened the contours, and relaxed the phrasing. In two months, it will be polished enough to share with an audience.

For nearly 30 years, these four friends—violinists Philip Setzer and Eugene Drucker, violist Lawrence Dutton, and cellist David Finckel—have been fused into the Emerson String Quartet, the most successful chamber ensemble in classical music. They have circled the world together, acquired eight Grammy Awards, and leaned on one another through health and family problems. None of the four is sure how to distinguish between professional camaraderie and personal feelings. They spend so much time together (more than many families do, maybe more than their own families) that they rarely socialize at home, yet theirs is a web so tight and complex, it resembles some Amazon tribe. “It’s an unbreakable friendship,” says Finckel. “They’re like my brothers. And that means a whole extended family: their wives, their kids, their friends. It’s a society.”

One source of sanity is the time they do get to spend apart, even on the road. They fly out of different New York airports and follow their own routines. Drucker eats a late lunch alone on concert days; Dutton practices scales while watching sports on television (with the sound off). Occasionally, the quartet members will say good-bye after a rehearsal in Manhattan and next meet up on the stage of a European concert hall. They give each other a lot of freedom to pursue ancillary careers. Drucker wrote a novel (The Savior, about a violinist). Setzer and Dutton teach. Finckel, the workaholic, tours with his wife, the pianist Wu Han, and, among other things, the two of them run the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. But the core of the four lives is the unit they form. Even when they’re alone, they’re not really apart. “I do a lot of practicing for quartet concerts, and in those hours, I still feel halfway like I’m with them,” says Drucker. Practicing in solitude means anticipating, often subconsciously, decisions that need to be made as a group.

For 250 years, the string-quartet genre has beckoned composers to extremes of grandeur and confession, and the Emerson ranges widely in that terrain, from the balmy charms of Mendelssohn to Shostakovich’s wintry gloom. “When we have an audience, the intensity brings out the best of us,” says Drucker. “We can still make some sparks fly, even after all these years.” Musical chemistry is the obvious glue, but so is mutual respect. To survive so long in a landscape littered with dead and dismembered ensembles requires a specific code of behavior. Article one: Every decision must be unanimous. There is no Article two. Drucker and Setzer switch off playing first violin, so that neither gets too used to lyrical lines or feels condemned to a perpetual um-chug-chug.

Finckel likes to say that the quartet is too busy to fight. It would be more accurate to say the four depend on each other too much to let their disagreements turn to drama. Setzer recalls a pivotal moment more than twenty years ago, just after the group launched a survey of Beethoven’s complete quartets, performed in chronological order. The opening concert was poorly reviewed (a New York Times critic wrote that the overall impression “was one of impeccable but bland musicianship”), and recriminations ensued. Someone suggested shuffling the rest of the series to mix amiable early pieces with meatier late ones. “We have to believe in ourselves,” Finckel said finally. Sure enough, reviews improved, and a Deutsche Grammophon deal materialized soon after. Setzer, who had felt the quartet was one step from dissolution, later said to Drucker that an episode like this showed how fragile the group was. Drucker answered: “Funny, I was thinking exactly the opposite.”

The first impression on hearing the Emerson quartet at close quarters—in Finckel’s living room, say—is that they play with miraculous unity. Bows switch directions like a flock of starlings. Accents ring with identical intensity and each crescendo surges to its natural plateau. But, as Dutton points out, blending is easy: The challenge is to remain distinct. “You wouldn’t want to see a play with four of the same character,” Setzer says. The Emerson does not have one amalgamated personality, or a single set of instincts. Finckel is parsimonious with rubato, those delicious instants when time stretches before snapping back to its appointed pace. Dutton is more impulsive, eager to try out a new interpretive idea, driving the orderly Drucker crazy. Finkel is the peacemaker, ready with a one-liner. Nobody coasts.

As a profession, chamber music represents a small strip of the music world, with professional string quartets on a tiny reservation. In that territory, Emerson is king. No other ensemble tours as widely, plays more repertoire, records as regularly, or earns higher fees. It’s not an easy way to make a living. They spend 140 nights in hotels each year, mostly playing college campuses and provincial auditoriums. Yo-Yo Ma travels as much, but earns about $85,000 for a concert. The Emerson quartet’s asking fee is $20,000, but in the classical world, everything’s negotiable, and the musicians pay their own expenses. Then the manager gets a fifth of the fee, and the cello requires its own airplane seat. The players take home what amounts to a middle manager’s pay.

They will go on this way as long as they are able. “We’ve worked very hard to get to this point,” says Setzer. “We’re just becoming elder statesmen, and it would be foolish not to ride that wave a bit.” They have, however, begun to discuss an endgame. “In ten years, Phil will be 68,” says Dutton, noting that he and the others are close behind. “For string players, 70 is pretty much a wrap.”

The Art of Survival