Emerson String Quartet — ‘the finest in the world’ — playing Chicago one last time

The quartet is undertaking a kind of farewell tour, which includes what is billed as its final stop in Chicago.

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The Emerson String Quartet — Paul Watkins (from left), Lawrence Dutton, Philip Setzer and Eugene Drucker.

The Emerson String Quartet — Paul Watkins (from left), Lawrence Dutton, Philip Setzer and Eugene Drucker.

Jürgen Frank

No objective, scientific tool exists to measure musical greatness, but many critics and audiences have concurred for several decades that the New York-based Emerson String Quartet is the finest such ensemble in the world.

To back up that assessment, one need look no further than the group’s myriad honors, which include nine Grammy Awards and three Gramophone Awards as well as the Avery Fisher Prize and Musical America’s Ensemble of the Year award.


Emerson String Quartet

When: 8 p.m. Feb. 25

Where: Gannon Concert Hall, Holtschneider Performance Center, DePaul University, 2330 N. Halsted

Tickets: $35

Info: music.depaul.edu/concerts-events

But the Emerson’s days in the limelight will soon come to an end. The 46-year-old ensemble announced last year that it would retire from the stage, performing its final concert at New York’s Alice Tully Hall in October 2023.

In the meantime, the Emerson is undertaking a kind of farewell tour, which includes what is billed as its final stop in Chicago — a Feb. 25 concert in DePaul University’s 505-seat Gannon Concert Hall.

According to Lawrence Dutton, the Emerson’s violist, the choice to quit performing was not an easy one. Spurring the decision more than anything was the desire to end on top and not fade into irrelevance as the group’s technical skills deteriorated.

“We’ve all been at it a long time,” he said, “and I feel like it’s a good thing to go out when you’re in your prime.”

The three longest-serving members, founding violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, and Dutton, who joined a year after the group’s establishment at the Juilliard School in 1976, are now in their late 60s and early 70s. Dutton said they have to work harder than ever to perform at a high level as their dexterity and stamina diminishes with age.

The Emerson String Quartet — Paul Watkins (cello), Eugene Drucker (violin), Philip Setzer (violin) and Larry Dutton (viola).

The Emerson String Quartet — Paul Watkins (cello), Eugene Drucker (violin), Philip Setzer (violin) and Larry Dutton (viola).

Jürgen Frank

“It’s not getting any easier to do,” he said. “I witnessed a lot of my teachers go on too long, and that goes for string quartets, too.”

For Paul Watkins, who replaced David Finckel as cellist in 2013 and is in his early 50s, the challenge has become other demands on his time. He became a full-time professor at the Yale School of Music in New Haven, Connecticut, in January and also serves as artistic director of the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival in Detroit.

While the quartet does not plan to present any more concerts after 2023, the four musicians and Finckel do intend to continue mentoring young quartets through the Emerson String Quartet Institute at Stony Brook (N.Y.) University, and each will continue to appear on his own.

For its last Chicago program, the Emerson is performing what Dutton called a “hefty” group of works from the heart of the quartet repertoire, including Dmitri Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 9 in E-flat major, Op. 117, and Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132.

While Shostakovich was still considered a daring choice several decades ago, his 15 quartets are now regularly played. The Emerson helped popularize these works, creating what Dutton called a “pretty big splash” with presentations of the entire series at different locations around the world and the 2000 release of a complete recorded set of them in 2000 that won two Grammys.

“His music is so successful with audiences,” Dutton said. “It’s always about a message. He just lived under that insanity of the Soviet Union, and you can feel that battle.”

The Emerson will end the program with one of the 16 celebrated quartets that Beethoven wrote across the span of his life, a set that serves as the foundation of the repertoire in this form.

“Without being sacrilegious,” Dutton said, “it is the Bible for string quartets. He just took it [the form] and ran with it. He took it right to [Béla] Bartók. He took it to the 20th century. In the end, he was writing in a new way, and it was just extraordinary.”

Dutton believes the Emerson will be remembered as an essential link in the modern history of the string quartet, which includes the Budapest String Quartet (1917-1967) and Guarneri String Quartet (1964-2009).

“I’m very proud of what we have done,” he said, “and I mean that in the context of how we stand in this long, long tradition, which is a wonderful thing.”

Dutton is confident the Emerson is leaving the field in good hands, including younger ensembles it has mentored, like the St. Lawrence, Ying, Artemis, Escher and Calidore quartets. “The Dover [Quartet] did not work with us, but they are fantastic,” he said. “They’re doing great.”

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