During its distinguished 26-year career, the Emerson String Quartet has raised the art of program making to new heights, focusing whole "projects" on specific themes or composers. The first path-breaker was the 1981 Bartók Marathon, celebrating that composer's centenary: all six quartets in chronological order in a single four-hour concert, an incredibly daring undertaking and a resounding success. "The great thing was to have as many people in the audience at the end as at the beginning," recalls violinist Eugene Drucker. Beethoven and Shostakovich cycles (both in chronological order) followed, preceded by combinations of late Beethoven with late Schubert and with late Shostakovich; the Haydn Project presented six great Haydn quartets in one concert.
The players' next project is perhaps their most ambitious: exploring the "boundaries of spirituality in music" through Haydn's Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross, Bach's Art of the Fugue, and three late Beethoven quartets. Violinist Philip Setzer, whom the others call "the architect of our programs," explains the connections: "We feel that it must have been a profoundly spiritual experience for Bach‹blind, on his deathbed‹to write, or rather to dictate, those fugues. Beethoven came as close as he ever did to the spiritual in the 'Sacred Hymn of Thanks' of Op. 132, and Op. 130 and 131 are tied to Bach through their fugues. The Haydn, of course, is spiritual in every sense." He adds, "We discovered a ninth movement that Haydn wrote later for the orchestral version; it's for winds, but Eugene transcribed it for string quartet." The three concerts are: March 14, 4:00 p.m. (Haydn and Beethoven's Op. 132) at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola; April 14, 8:00 p.m. (Bach, Part I, Beethoven's Op. 131) and April 28, 8:00 p.m. (Bach, Part II, Beethoven's Op. 130 with "Grosse Fuge") at Alice Tully Hall. Fortunately, the Emerson has recorded this entire repertoire for Deutsche Grammophon.
Fearlessly innovative as always, the Quartet's violinists and violist recently decided to add a groundbreaking technique to their performance style as well. They now all play standing up. "We know it looks strange," Setzer admits, "but it's so much more comfortable!"