By Marina Liao
The renowned Emerson String Quartet has been in residence at Stony Brook for 11 years and one of its founding members and musicians Philip Setzer, 62, has been playing the violin for more than 50 years. And he never gets tired of playing for himself or for the audience.
Setzer was born in Cleveland, Ohio to parents who were both violinists in the Cleveland Orchestra. He started playing the violin when he was five and continued on until he went to Juilliard in the 70s.
Some might say he was born with an innate musical ability, but Setzer thinks otherwise: “I don’t know how much of [playing the violin] is in my blood. I owe it to great music. When I was young, we didn’t have TV, so we listened to classical music or baseball games.”
While he was in Juilliard, he studied with the famous violinist and conductor, Oscar Shumsky. It was there Setzer met future Emerson co-founder and player, Eugene Drucker, a violinist who also studied under Shumsky. Both young musicians were assigned to play in a string quartet.
The Emerson String Quartet was formed in the bicentennial year 1976 and named after poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Lawrence Dutton, a violist, auditioned and joined the group in 1977 and David Finckel, a cellist, in 1979.
The quartet has been together for 34 years.
The secret to this relationship Setzer said, “is we care more about the music than we do about driving our own careers. We don’t fight about who wants to play what and we don’t let our egos get in the way. We sympathize with one another — that’s the key.”
This formula seems to work. Together the group has won nine Grammys, three Gramophone Awards, the Avery Fisher prize and has performed in venues such as the Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall as well as abroad in Europe and Asia.
“We were the first chamber music group to win two Grammys for Best Classical Album and as a chamber music group — winning each time was a thrill. I took my family to the Grammys and the years I brought them we won. Then one year I didn’t bring them and we lost,” chuckled Setzer.
In 1981, the Emerson String Quartet achieved a task most musicians found too difficult to perform — and never attempted before — six Bartok quartets in one night.
“The performance put the Emerson out on a limb, but we stood up for what we believed in,” Finckel, the Emerson cellist, said.
Now in its 37th season, the Emerson String Quartet is still going strong despite the announcement of Finckel leaving the group at the end of May. British cellist Paul Watkins will be replacing him.
“I am involved in several projects and institutions now that I now have to commit to,” Finckel said. “I want to cut down on the concerts I play in, so I can play better and also learn the solo cellist Bach pieces. I would never want to think the group prevented me from doing all these things.”
The group has always put music as its first priority.
Setzer said that Watkins, being two decades younger than he is, will have a different perspective of the music and will be a refreshing addition to the group.
“What I realized almost from the first notes that we played together as a quartet was that these 3 gentlemen are chamber musicians and artists of the highest order. I think we will all try to find a common voice which will eventually become the sound of the new Emerson Quartet.” Watkins said.
On April 17, the quartet played their last Stony Brook concert together. Setzer, an expressive violinist, along with the other Emerson members performed with heart and enthusiasm that brought the audience to a standing ovation.
Aside from their performing aspirations, Setzer and Dutton are also professors of violin and viola, respectively, at Stony Brook. “Teaching keeps me fresh with the music. When students play music it gives me an objective view of it and I learn more about the piece itself,” said Setzer.
Although the music school at the university is at a high standard, the musicians have mentioned that in education, the music has been less emphasized in the curriculum and musicians themselves have to adapt to the changing social and technological environments they play in.
“Kids have to reinvent themselves. They can’t just learn to play an instrument and expect to make it,” said Dutton. “You have to be your own advocate and be flexible.”
Setzer said, although the audience for classical music tends to be the grey-haired crowd, he does see many young students who strive to be classical musicians and those who come to appreciate classical music once they find the time to listen.
“I don’t think the battle between pop music and classical music should be one that’s fought. Pop music is what’s popular, what everyone likes and listens to now. But classical music is on another level of challenge and deliverance. It is profound,” said Setzer.
When he is not busy performing, touring or teaching music Setzer enjoys watching the Walking Dead and rooting for the Yankees.