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The Emerson Quartet At (Le) Poisson Rouge

"The one indispensable quartet." A simple statement, but high praise. That's how one classical-music critic described the Emerson String Quartet, which made its debut at (Le) Poisson Rouge in New York's Greenwich Village.

The group's accomplishments have been vast since it started as a student ensemble at the Juilliard School and then seamlessly went professional in 1976: nine Grammy Awards, more than 30 recordings for Deutsche Grammophon and more than 20 premieres and commissions of new works, to name just a few.

Recently, the quartet has turned its attention to the late string quartets by Antonin Dvorak. There's a new recording of the music, plus a three-concert series at Lincoln Center in New York called Adventures in Bohemia.

For their (Le) Poisson Rouge concert, the Emersons paid homage to Dvorak and revisited some of the repertoire that helped them acquire such accolades as Time Magazine calling them "America's greatest quartet."

About This Performance

Janacek At The Center

At the core of the concert is the String Quartet No. 1 by Leos Janacek. The Emersons have been playing both of Janacek's String Quartets for more than 20 years. In an interview with violinist.com, the Emersons' Philip Setzer (who swaps first violin duties with Eugene Drucker) says they were attracted to Janacek's music because of his unique musical language.

"Janacek was fascinated with speech, the spoken word — the rhythms of it, the pitch of it," Setzer said. "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."

Janacek's Quartet No. 1 has an interesting pedigree. It was inspired by Leo Tolstoy's novel The Kreutzer Sonata, which in turn was inspired by Beethoven's Violin Sonata, Op. 47, subtitled "Kreutzer." In Tolstoy's story, Beethoven's violin and piano is represented by a husband and wife whose marriage becomes increasingly bitter and ends in tragedy.

Also on the wide-ranging bill: Samuel Barber's solemn "Adagio," a sturdy Bach fugue and a movement from one of Beethoven's transcendent late string quartets.


  • Eugene Drucker, violin
  • Philip Setzer, violin
  • Lawrence Dutton, viola
  • David Finckel, cello
  • By this time, after playing together for decades, the quartet can basically finish each other's sentences. Perhaps the most-asked question the Emersons continue to field is, "How on earth have you stayed together so long?" Sure, they have their differences of opinion. They've had tense moments. But it's the sense of humor, they say, that keeps them going. Setzer says they generally have a good time — lots of laughs, without taking themselves too seriously.

    The only thing they take seriously, he says, is the music.

    Copyright 2021 WQXR Radio. To see more, visit WQXR Radio.

    Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.