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Chamber quartet brings new dynamic to Baldwin

Special to The Chronicle
Special to The Chronicle

On Sat., December 7, the renowned Emerson String Quartet will perform for a sold-out audience in Baldwin Auditorium. The quartet, named after American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, was formed in 1976 by violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violist Lawrence Dutton and cellist David Finckel.

“The Emerson String Quartet is probably the most important American string quartet of the last quarter century,” Aaron Greenwald, Director of Duke Performances, said. “In that period of time, they’ve defined what an American string quartet sounds like.”

The quartet rode in on the wave of chamber groups and string quartets that emerged in the 1970s. These groups, which include the Tokyo, the American and the Emerson String Quartets, revitalized the chamber music scene and made it popular once more. This rise in chamber music was also complemented by the emergence of digital recording and the invention of the CD.

“Now, everybody wants to play in a quartet,” Setzer said. “Suddenly, there was this tremendous opportunity to make a lot of recordings. We were there during all of that."

“They’re one of the preeminent string quartets in the country,” Jonathan Bagg, Professor of the Practice of Music and violist for the Ciompi Quartet, said. “Anybody who follows string quartets has heard them or at least certainly heard about them.”

This season, for the first time in over 30 years, the Emerson’s lineup has changed, with Paul Watkins replacing Finckel as the group's cellist. While there was concern about the result of this development, the reactions to Watkins have been very positive thus far.

“A lot of quartets, when a member leaves or a couple of members decide to leave, they just shut down the quartet," Greenwald said. "So it’s really interesting that they’ve decided to carry on with this new musician. My hope is that it adds a kind of new energy to the ensemble."

The quartet has been very pleased with the results of the transition so far, though. “It was all very friendly, and we understood,” Setzer said of Finckel leaving the group. “Very fortunately, the timing was right to get our first choice, which was Paul Watkins.”

Watkins, a renowned cellist of his own accord, has managed to fit in with the quartet very well.

“Paul is so quick and so sensitive to what is going on around him that it hasn’t been a struggle,” Setzer said. “If anything, it’s been an inspiration to the other three of us.”

Duke has been fortunate enough to have hosted the Emerson String Quartet many times over the past few decades. Now, in a renovated Baldwin Auditorium, there is even more incentive to see the new version of this quartet.

“Emerson first played at Duke in 1983. This is—if you’re familiar with the group—a chance to see what they sound like with this new musician in their ranks,” Greenwald said.

The Chamber Arts Society at Duke has been instrumental in getting the group to perform at Duke time and time again.

“It’s actually one of the healthiest chamber societies in the country. It’s usually the case that the concerts sell out. We’re in a group of five or six places in the country that are really strong,” Bagg explained.

Baldwin Auditorium, which has become one of the premiere concert venues in the Triangle Area, provides a perfect venue for the Durham and Duke community to see this world-famous quartet play their captivating program. The performance will open with the Mendelssohn's last completed work, a beautiful eulogy which Setzer described as “full of despair." The Mendelssohn piece will be followed by Shostakovich’s final quartet and, after intermission, Beethoven’s “String Quartet No. 7 in F Major,” which provides a sharp contrast to the agony of the opening piece.

Setzer summed up the program: “You go as dark as you can go, and the second half pulls you back.”

Ultimately, this unique performance will provide an opportunity for the audience to see a string quartet at the peak of their career, with a new cello player and a new dynamic.

“We just want to share what we feel about this great music and this great art,” Setzer said of the quartet’s goal of sharing humanity's artistic creations. “There are so many horrible things on this earth, and the one thing you can say that counterbalances that is all of the incredible things we have been inspired to create.”

The Emerson String Quartet will be performing in Baldwin Auditorium on December 7, 2013. More tickets may be released to the public this week. For more information, visit


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