As one of the most distinguished string ensembles of our time, the Emerson String Quartet has found success in its longevity. Over the course of their 33 years together, the musicians of Emerson have become giants in the world of classical music with nine Grammy Awards, a never-ending succession of international concert tours and an illustrious body of recordings.
However, the quartet recently announced that their line-up will soon change. On February 14, cellist David Finckel stated on his website that the upcoming 2012-13 concert season would be his last. Finckel, at age 60, co-produces at a record label, runs a summer chamber music festival called Music@Menlo and is artistic director of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center with his wife, pianist Wu Han.
“It doesn’t surprise anybody that he might feel the need to have a less hectic life,” says Music Department Chair Judith Lochhead.
Stony Brook University has been profoundly affected by its association with the Emerson String Quartet. Through the efforts of piano professor Gilbert Kalish, former provost Robert McGrath and former president Shirley Strum-Kenny, the quartet was appointed as artists-in-residence in 2002. As part of their contract Emerson was hired to perform four concerts a year and coach the university chamber music program, cited Lochhead. Since that time, the quartet’s involvement on campus has grown dramatically.
Over the course of teaching at the university, members of the Emerson String Quartet have grown increasingly connected to the students of Stony Brook. “It became apparent early on that [Emerson violinist] Phil Setzer wanted to teach more than just chamber music,” explained Lochhead. Setzer is now a full time tenured professor of violin and is soon to be joined by his colleague. Emerson violist Larry Dutton is expected to begin his full-time viola professorship next year.
The quartet not only expanded their teaching duties, but also generated new performance opportunities for university musicians. What began as a contract of four concerts a year has become three formal concerts showcasing recent recorded works and a week long spring chamber music festival highlighting the talents of Stony Brook’s student musicians.
“The Emerson Festival is really exciting because you actually get to perform a chamber piece with a member of the Emerson Quartet,” said student and violinist Natalie Kress.
These concerts are free and open to the public, a huge incentive that has drawn in many members of the community. In the process of seeing the world-class Emerson musicians in action, the community has gotten to know budding talents of student musicians. Furthermore, community involvement has been key to fundraising for the music department and Staller Center. “Of course, there has been evidence of increased fundraising because of the Emerson String Quartet,” noted Lochhead.
The consequences of these active roles on the Stony Brook campus have helped the music department grow in notoriety, by giving it a “higher profile,” declared Lochhead. The already prestigious department has also seen an improvement in recruitment of talented musicians from all over the world.
Many students concur that Emerson’s presence was a unique incentive to attend SBU. Violinist and student Jon Block has been coached and taught by members of the Emerson String Quartet. He cited that the opportunity to work with such esteemed musicians was extremely compelling. “Much of their advice is immensely intuitive,” he says. Through their instruction, Block said he has reached a new level of musicianship.
Kress is also thankful for the time she has been able to spend with the quartet. “Not only have they been a window into the professional chamber music world, but knowing them as people has inspired me.” These rewarding experiences often come with a huge price tag. However, having the group at Stony Brook has allowed Kress and her fellow musicians to get a conservatory experience at a state university.
The impending membership change of the Emerson Quartet might have students and community members fearing for the worst. Lochhead sees no such misfortune in sight. Finckel stated on his website that his withdrawal from Emerson will allow him “to pursue, with greater energy, [his] increasing number of performing, educational and presenting commitments.” Lochhead says it is likely that Finckel will stay on the university faculty, but in a somewhat different capacity for at least the first year of his life independent of Emerson.
The Emerson Quartet has already lined up Finckel’s successor. Lochhead clarifies that the cellist’s departure from the group will not diminish its role on campus because of the arrival of new cellist Paul Watkins in the fall of 2013. Watkins, a celebrated solo cellist, conductor, and chamber musician from England will fulfill Finckel’s former duties. “If changes need to happen, they will be resolved as they come up,” said Lochhead.