Philip Setzer remembers the day it all started. He and fellow violinist Eugene Drucker ran into each other in the library of the Juilliard School of Music, where they were students of Oscar Shumsky's and members of quartets they both agreed were disasters.
"What do you think about playing in a quartet together next year?" Setzer recalls Drucker asking. Setzer thought that was a fine idea. "Then as the door was closing I remember him leaning out and saying in a whisper, `We'll switch - is that OK?' "Thus was born the Emerson String Quartet, the first major quartet whose violinists regularly swap chairs. "I think there've been other groups that have tried it," Setzer adds, "but not many have been able to sustain it."
That was in 1976 - at least that is the year the Emerson went professional. A year later fellow Juilliarder Lawrence Dutton replaced the group's original violist, to be followed in 1979 by cellist David Finckel. And although the years since have seen a slow but steady rise in prominence, this year it was climaxed in spectacular fashion. The Emerson won a Grammy.
And not just one Grammy. For not only did their recording of the Bartok quartets for Deutsche Grammophon take the chamber-music award; it also copped the best classical album trophy, the first time that has ever happened to a string quartet. You may not have seen that on your TV screen - it's been a long time since the classical awards were accorded that kind of attention on the Grammycast. But rest assured, Messrs. Drucker, Setzer, Dutton and Finckel were on hand for the event, even though the outcome was something of a surprise to them, too.
"Everyone advised us not to bother," Dutton recalls, "because there is such an emphasis on the pop scene. But we figured the chances of being nominated in both categories were pretty unusual, so we went anyway. It turned out to be fantastic."
Not that the Emerson's Bartok hadn't already come in for its share of accolades. In addition to rave reviews (including one here) it also received Gramophone magazine's Record of the Year award in England, in many ways a more prestigious honor than the Grammy. But remembering that the entire National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences votes on the Grammys, well, Setzer admits, "not to look down our noses, but we really didn't think a lot of them would know who Bartok was. But I think there was a feeling this year of the new and unexpected. You might say we were in the right place at the right time."
This week the Emerson will be in Utah - not for the first time - for a concert Tuesday, April 24, at the University of Utah, at 8 p.m. in the Museum of Fine Arts. But it will be their first time here as Grammy winners, and it will be interesting to see what difference, if any, that makes.
According to Dutton and Setzer, it's already made a difference in their lives. "For one thing, we're seeing bigger audiences," the latter observes, adding that a lot of their concerts these days are sellouts. At the same time, he says, the group's fees have escalated to the point "where we can cut down on the sheer number of concerts we play in order to spend a little more time at home and in preparing the music."
"It's also changed our relationship with the record company," Dutton says. "Not that they didn't respect us when they engaged us, but now we have their approval basically to do whatever we like." In the near future, he says, that means some American music, including a number of pieces written specifically for them, as well as a projected Shostakovich cycle.
The closest Tuesday's program comes to that is Hindemith's String Quartet No. 3, composed in 1922. It will be bracketed, in more-or-less-traditional fashion, by Haydn and Beethoven - the former's Op. 33, No. 3 (the "Bird"), and the latter's Op. 131 Quartet in C sharp minor. Clearly in terms of appearance and programming, the Emerson is not out to beat the Kronos Quartet at its own game.
"We've never tried to cross over that line," Setzer says of the Emerson's consciously conservative stage presentation. "Our feeling is that we want people to really enjoy the music, and we have never opted for anything that gets in the way of that. I think it's a very good service the Kronos does to chamber music, crossing over the line and getting young people to listen. But I also see more and more young people coming to our concerts. They're just not crossover people."
Apart from artistic excellence, to what does the Emerson credit its success? "Well, it's never easy to sustain a career in anything, but especially in chamber music," Setzer says, as we each recall groups that in recent years especially have fallen by the wayside. "Financially it was very difficult in the beginning, but that was when it was still possible to get some money from the government. The first couple of tours we did, for example, the National Endowment for the Arts matched our fees. But I think we always had success at key times along the way, when for various reasons things started to feel like they were unraveling. Sometimes it would be help from an individual or a series of concerts that went extremely well or even somebody writing us a letter.
"The Deutsche Grammophon contract is a case in point. We'd done some recording for New World Records, then CRI, then for Book-of-the-Month Club. At that point both Philips and DG were interested in us, but both already had a full roster of quartets. Then a few months later things changed at Deutsche Grammophon. First they decided not to renew their contract with the Melos Quartet, with whom they had pretty much recorded everything. Then death finally broke up the Amadeus Quartet. Again, it was pretty much a question of being in the right place at the right time."
And being prepared to seize the chance. Obviously the Bartok set caught the group in peak form, as by all accounts did their concert survey of all six quartets around the same time at Carnegie Hall.
"I've said this a lot, but we're lucky in that we have a good chemistry," Dutton says. "There are no weak links in our group. Also the way we decide things has to be unanimous. If somebody really does not want to do something, whether it's extend a concert tour or play or record a certain piece, we won't do it. I know in other groups they may vote and if it's 3 to 1 they'll go ahead, but I think that can lead to bad blood. Also we are careful to separate the business from the art. Initially that was hard to do. We would get into business discussions and a three-hour rehearsal would disappear."
Does that same unanimity govern the Emerson's interpretive decisions?
"At this point we're also lucky," Dutton says, "in that most of the repertoire we play we are going to be playing a lot. That means if we're playing a Beethoven quartet, it's something we've been living with 12 or 13 years with evolving interpretive ideas. So if somebody wants to change a tempo or try something else different, the rest of us are usually willing to give the idea a chance. It's the kind of compromise where you say to yourself, if I can't have my way tonight I'll push for it another night and get it then."
Tuesday's decisions can be sampled via the Chamber Music Society of Salt Lake City, which will make any leftover tickets available for $15. For information call 467-9649.