Time flies when you're having fun just ask violinist Eugene Drucker, one of the founding members of the Emerson String Quartet. Forty years later, the quartet is still going strong so you might be wondering: what is the secret to maintaining a long working relationship? "I think mutual respect is very important," Eugene says. "You have to be not only tolerant of the differences between yourself and others but actually open to learning from different ways of doing things. A sense of humor is also important and the ability to take a step back … and being able to laugh at oneself when your needs or desires are not necessarily met in a given situation. So I would say a sense of humor is an important lubricant."
The Emerson String Quartet is a well-oiled machine, whose creative work is documented in a new 52-CD, limited-edition box set of its complete recordings. I asked Eugene where he would suggest you start listening. "That's a good question - I haven't thought about that," he ponders. "You know, my advice to that person might depend a little bit on what I know of that person's musical taste and the extent to which he or she is indoctrinated in the world of classical music in general and in the world of chamber music. So, for example, we have found that Shostakovich's music has a really visceral effect on audiences when we perform it. So it might surprise you if I would suggest that they listen to a Shostakovich quartet to begin with instead of Haydn or Mozart. But I think for some people who are not that familiar with the repertoire and the way in which the narrative of the string quartet unfolds for example in the classical period, late 18th century I might try to find something that feels like it's from the more recent past to recommend to them.
"But I would want that person to sooner or later listen to the way we interpreted Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven," Eugene continues. "If you take the totality of Beethoven's work, those 16 quartets, which clearly divide into the early, middle, and late periods, you have really the cornerstone of the quartet repertoire. Music that to some extent was influenced by Haydn and Mozart and even music way before the existence of the string quartet. But most significantly, music that had a huge effect on generations of composers that followed Beethoven. So very early in this hypothetical listening project I would suggest that the person listen to some of the Beethoven quartets."
When I started to scan everything that's in this set, one thing that caught my ear was the Mendelssohn Octet. It's a unique performance featuring each member of the Emerson String Quartet on two different parts, using different instruments. "That's right," Eugene confirms. "We used the different instruments in order to try to differentiate our sounds as much as possible. So for example, when I played first violin and fourth violin, the sounds were somewhat different. Of course, it was still me playing and by the way the nature of the way those parts are written is quite different. The first violin is the lead line, it's very extroverted, very flamboyant, concerto-like writing. The fourth violin is more of a team player. But the fourth violin does get a couple of very beautiful, lyrical solos in the course of that octet. Each one of us then used a pairing of a new instrument for one part and an old Italian instrument for the other part he was playing. In addition to that, we sat in different places on the stage. So for the audience, the imaginary configuration of this group that one is listen to let's say you're in your living room, listening on your stereo system … there are eight different locations of sound coming out of your speakers. We didn't want a flatness of texture, of the auditory impression it made on the listeners.
"A lot of this was conceived by our brilliant recording producer and engineer, Da-Hong Seetoo, who himself is an excellent violinist," Eugene adds. "He had to build hardware into his computer, I think, at that time in order to give a sense of this kind of spatial dimension in which this imaginary octet was functioning. He did a great job."
So I'm looking at the list of all the special guests with whom you've performed over the years. Can you share a memorable story about your experience with that special guest?
"We performed and recorded the Schubert Cello Quintet with Rostropovich in late 1990. We performed the Quintet with Slava, and David Finckel, our cellist, had studied with Slava and absolutely worshiped him. As a young man, David followed him around, trying to get lessons whenever he could … [Rostropovich] was a big drinker and got us all to drink a lot during that week we were together. It was a very festive time. We enjoyed the dinners we had with him and the mayor and the cultural department of BASF. He also had an apartment in Paris that was one of his homes, and our next stop was Paris, where we had a concert without him in a Sunday morning series, at the Champs Elysées. He offered us a ride in the Falcon jet that was made available to him by the head of the BASF Corporation because he was president of the festival. So we rode in that Falcon jet with him and the champagne flowed freely during that one-hour flight, I can tell you that."
In 2013, David Finckel decided to step down after spending 34 years with the Emerson String Quartet. That was an emotional transition for the ensemble, that was made easier by the addition of Paul Watkins. "Paul is an amazing and versatile musician. He's an accomplished pianist and fine conductor in addition to being a stellar cellist," Eugene explains. "David Finckel of course was a hard act to follow, and nobody was more aware of this than Paul himself. Paul is a different sort of cellist his sound is different the cello sound is a foundation of the string quartet's tone. So in addition to sound there's a question of pacing of our interpretations and I think that the rhythmic sense might be a little bit looser now than it was before. A little more expansive than times, especially looking back 15 or 20 years the way we used to play or record the Beethoven quartets, for example, where we were very conscious of B's metronome markings … it's a different experience with Paul and the general tone so to speak in our rehearsals is very relaxed and friendly. It's almost like a social club getting together. But we also have the great joy of playing all these wonderful pieces. Preparing them and then performing them together. There's a really strong collegial sense of enthusiasm."