In March 2011, Sony Classical announced an exclusive agreement with the Emerson String Quartet. The Quartet’s debut album for the label, Mozart’s Prussian Quartets K. 575, K. 589 and K. 590, will be released in October 2011 to coincide with a series of concerts at Wigmore Hall in London and Alice Tully Hall in New York City. This summer they return to esteemed music festivals across the United States, including Ravinia, Caramoor, Interlochen, Tanglewood and Aspen Music Festivals as well as Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival and Chamber Music Northwest in Portland, Oregon. In 2011-2012, its 35th season as an ensemble, the Emerson performs extensively throughout North America and Europe, with concerts in Boston, Vancouver, Denver, Philadelphia, Washington DC, San Diego, Houston and Ann Arbor and on tours taking them to Germany, Denmark, Slovenia, Austria, England, Spain, Switzerland, Italy and South Korea. The Emerson continues its residency at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, now in its 32nd season.
Since 2002, the Emerson has been Quartet-in-Residence at Stony Brook University, coaching chamber music, giving master classes and providing instrumental instruction. The ensemble conducted its first three International Chamber Music Workshops at Stony Brook in June 2004, 2006, and 2008. In addition to teaching duties, the group performs several concerts during the year at Stony Brook’s Staller Center for the Arts, and continues its educational affiliation with Carnegie Hall. The Quartet has conducted three Professional Training Workshops at Carnegie’s Weill Music Institute, focusing on the Bartók quartets, quintets of Brahms and Dvorák and most recently the Beethoven quartets, in conjunction with the Perspective Series. In 2000, the Emerson was named ‘Ensemble of the Year’ by Musical America, and in March 2004, became the 18th recipient of the Avery Fisher Prize — another first for a chamber ensemble.
Throughout its history, the Emerson String Quartet has garnered an international reputation for groundbreaking chamber music projects and correlated recordings. In 1988, the Quartet attracted national attention with the presentation of the six Bartók quartets in a single evening for its Carnegie Hall debut. The Emerson’s subsequent release of the cycle received the 1989 Grammy® Awards for “Best Classical Album” and “Best Chamber Music Performance” and Gramophone Magazine’s 1989 “Record of the Year” — the first time in the history of each award that a chamber music ensemble had ever received the top prize.
In March 1997, the Quartet released a seven-disc set of the complete Beethoven quartets and organized a series of performances over two seasons at New York’s Lincoln Center entitled “Beethoven and the Twentieth Century,” a total of eight concerts that each paired two Beethoven quartets with a twentieth-century composition. Initial reviews of this series were so strong that the remaining performances were completely sold out; the Beethoven recording earned a Grammy® Award for “Best Chamber Music Album.”
In 2000, the Emerson performed the complete Shostakovich quartets at New York’s Lincoln Center and in London, with a cycle divided between the Wigmore Hall and the Barbican. Each series culminated with The Noise of Time, a theatrical presentation directed by Simon McBurney (Street of Crocodiles, The Chairs) featuring the Quartet and Complicité, Mr. McBurney’s theater company. Blending film, choreography, taped readings and live music, the multimedia work explored the haunted life of Dmitri Shostakovich through his 15th String Quartet. Since 2001, The Noise of Time has been repeated to great acclaim in Los Angeles, Berlin, Vienna, Paris and Moscow. In 2008, New York Magazine named The Noise of Time one of the most important contributions to the arts in New York since the inception of the magazine.
The theatrical nature of Shostakovich’s music and its powerful effect on audiences led the Emerson to record the Shostakovich Quartets live during three summers of performances at the Aspen Music Festival. Meticulous editing eliminated virtually all background noise, and the recording on the Deutsche Grammophon label has been praised for its intensity and energy. The five-disc set won the 2000 Grammy® Awards for “Best Classical Album” and “Best Chamber Music Performance,” as well as Gramophone Magazine’s “Best Chamber Music Performance” Award for 2000.
2006-2007 marked the Quartet’s 30/20 Anniversary Season — celebrating 30 years of quartet activity and 20 years as exclusive Deutsche Grammophon recording artists. Carnegie Hall honored the Quartet with a historic nine-concert Perspectives series, titled Beethoven In Context, held in the Isaac Stern Auditorium. Juxtaposing Beethoven’s quartet repertoire with notable compositions spanning three centuries, the concerts received an overwhelming response from audiences, and the New York Times covered the series with eight outstanding reviews. “Concertgoers have come to count on these superb musicians, who are celebrating their 30th anniversary with this series and who continue to play with technical command, musical insight, vivid imagination and tireless enthusiasm.” (The New York Times). As a special tribute, Deutsche Grammophon and iTunes joined forces to offer an exclusive retrospective of the Emerson in June 2007 — a project featuring recording triumphs intermingled with personal interviews.
Additional projects of note include the 2001 US premiere performances of Wolfgang Rihm’s quartet concerto, Dithyrambe, with Christoph von Dohnanyi and the Cleveland Orchestra in Severance Hall, Boston’s Symphony Hall and New York’s Carnegie Hall. Through its theatrical and orchestral experiences, the quartet became intrigued with the idea of standing while performing, and began to experiment with this style in chamber music appearances. The two violinists and the violist of the Emerson now stand for most performances; the cellist plays on a small podium.
The Emerson String Quartet’s final recording for Deutsche Grammophon is Old World, New World, a 3-CD set of Dvorák’s late quartets, Cypresses and the viola quintet, released in April 2010. Other notable recordings on Deutsche Grammophon include 2009’s Intimate Letters—featuring chamber works by Janácek and Martinu and winner of the 2009 Grammy® for Best Chamber Music Performance—J.S. Bach Fugues from “The Well Tempered Clavier,” the Grammy® Award- winning Intimate Voices, a recording of Grieg, Nielsen and Sibelius string quartets, and the complete Mendelssohn string quartets and octet, which received 2005 Grammy® Awards for “Best Chamber Music Performance” and “Best Engineered Album, Classical.” The Emerson Quartet has also recorded Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross, Bach’s Art of Fugue, The Haydn Project (a selection of seven quartets from various periods of Haydn’s career) and The Emerson Encores, preceded by interpretations of quartets by Schumann, Brahms, Dvorák, Smetana, Tchaikovsky, Borodin and Prokofiev, the set of six quartets Mozart dedicated to Haydn, the Schubert Cello Quintet with Mstislav Rostropovich, the Schumann Piano Quintet and Quartet with Menahem Pressler, Dvorák Piano Quintet and Quartet with Pressler, the complete string works of Anton Webern and Samuel Barber’s Dover Beach with baritone Thomas Hampson. Several of these recordings were nominated for Grammy® Awards.
Dedicated to the performance of classical repertoire, the Emerson String Quartet also has demonstrated a strong commitment to the commissioning and performance of 20th- and 21st-century music. Important commissions and premieres include compositions by Thomas Adès (2011), Pierre Jalbert (2011), Lawrence Dillon (2010), Bright Sheng (2007), Kaija Saariaho (2007), Nicholas Maw (2006), Andre Prévin (2003), Joan Tower (2003), Ellen Taaffe Zwillich (1998), Edgar Meyer (1995), Ned Rorem (1995), Paul Epstein (1994), Wolfgang Rihm (1993), Richard Wernick (1991), Richard Danielpour (1988), John Harbison (1987), Gunther Schuller (1986), George Tsontakis (1984), Maurice Wright (1983), Ronald Caltabiano (1981) and Mario Davidovsky (1979).
Formed in the bicentennial year of the United States, the Emerson String Quartet took its name from the great American poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. Violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer alternate in the first chair position and are joined by violist Lawrence Dutton and cellist David Finckel. The Quartet has performed numerous benefit concerts for campaigns against AIDS, hunger and juvenile diabetes. The Quartet members were honored by the Governor of Connecticut for their outstanding cultural contributions to the state, and in 1994 received the University Medal for Distinguished Service from the University of Hartford, where they were quartet-in-residence for two decades until 2002. In 1995, each member was awarded an honorary doctoral degree by Middlebury College in Vermont. They have also received a Smithson Award from the Smithsonian Institution. In 2006, the Quartet received an honorary doctorate from Wooster College, where it has performed frequently, and in May 2009, the four musicians were honored with a doctorate from Bard College. This season, the Emerson is honored with a doctorate from the University of Hartford.
The Emerson String Quartet has been featured in New York Magazine, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, USA Today, Elle, Bon Appétit, Gramophone, The Strad, and Strings. Television appearances include PBS’s NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, WNET’s City Arts, WLIW’s Metroguide, and A&E’s Biography of Beethoven and Breakfast with the Arts. The ensemble has been the subject of two award-winning films: the nationally televised WETA-TV production In Residence at the Renwick (Emmy Award for Excellence, 1983) and Making Music: The Emerson String Quartet (First Place for Music, National Education Film Festival, 1985). To commemorate its 25th-anniversary season, the Quartet compiled a book entitled Converging Lines. Written in the members’ own words, the book contains never-before-published text, graphics and photos from the Emerson’s private archives. The Quartet is based in New York City.