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Uptown and Downtown

I’m not sure at what point in Manhattan’s past the term “uptown” became interchangeable with “upscale,” and “downtown” was joined at the hip with “hip.”

But one thing that has happened as cross-cultural borders get fuzzier is that we are seeing so-called “uptown” performers—musicians you’d have expected in the past to see only at places like Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center—now appearing in club settings where food and liquor are served. One new such event is the Monteverdi Coronation of Poppea being staged by Opera Omnia from August 21 to 27 at Le Poisson Rouge on Bleecker Street. Opera Omnia’s Wesley Chinn has chosen this more casual pub venue, where perhaps younger concertgoers will go with a group of friends in place of a standard bar night.

Also this week, the renowned Emerson String Quartet is performing—literally and figuratively—both uptown AND downtown. The quartet’s members are violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violist Lawrence Dutton, and cellist David Finckel. Their downtown evening at Joe’s Pub on Wednesday, August 20, features a program of four “B” composers: Bach, Barber, Bartók, and Beethoven. On that program, no piece will last more than about ten minutes, and $15 tickets are priced to present a low barrier for newcomers. The uptown evening, the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center, takes place the next night, August 21, when they play works of Schubert, Mozart, and Kaija Saariaho, who is that festival’s composer in residence. It would appear from the program descriptions that downtown venue is offering the more traditional, “uptown” music, while the uptown Lincoln Center event has, in Terra Memoria, the Saariaho piece, an edgier program.

Recently I spoke about the uptown/downtown phenomenon with Eugene Drucker, one of Emerson’s two violinists, just before he was set to return to New York from a brief vacation in New England.

SundayArts: This morning I heard radio station WQXR—which is co-hosting the Joe’s Pub event with Deutsche Grammophon, your record label—describe this event as “uptown headed downtown.” How did this first Joe’s Pub appearance for the quartet come about?

Eugene Drucker: Deutsche Grammophon, our recording company, has a series there, DG Downtown Concert Series; violinist Daniel Hope played a concert in the series at Joe’s Pub last March. There is a series that we’ve been aware of for years now in Germany—it sounds a little funny in English, but it’s called the Yellow Lounge. Which is I think a similar concept where classical groups play in unconventional venues. So we’ve done that twice in Berlin. The first time was in 2001, and the last time was maybe a year and a half ago, where we’ve gone to a nightclub or something like that. The Yellow Lounge is not a specific place. It’s a concept—a way that Deutsche Grammophon has been trying to interest younger people in classical music in various German cities.

SundayArts: What was the reaction from the Yellow Lounge appearances?

Drucker: It was very positive. We played in smoke-filled bars—they weren’t bars really, I guess they were more like nightclubs. Both times were in Berlin; we were asked once to do it in another German city, I can’t remember which one, but we didn’t have time. We were always squeezing it into concert schedules that we had. I think both times we raced to the club after a normal concert was over. And then played for these people—a lot of young people, very enthusiastic, who seemed interested in what we were doing. We didn’t play into a microphone, but I remember speaking into a microphone. Maybe there was a microphone when we played—I just can’t remember.

SundayArts: You spoke in English?

Eugene Drucker: I think I spoke in a combination of English and German.

SundayArts: So of the four members of the Emerson, who enjoys talking at these events? Does it depend on the pieces you are playing?

Drucker: I don’t think it depends so much on the role a particular one of us plays in a piece, but usually it’s Phil Setzer or I that will do the talking, but that’s not always the case. David Finckel’s voice is not the kind of voice that projects in a large space unless he’s got a microphone, so if it’s a place without a microphone, it’s very unlikely that he will speak in public. Usually David Finckel or Larry Dutton will add something to what we’ve said. And now when I’m saying “usually,” we’ve only done this nightclub kind of situation a couple of times … this is probably going to be the third time in our career. But I’m referring to other kinds of situations, like when we play in high schools or something like that, which we don’t do very often, but when we have a chance to do some outreach, and talk about ourselves, what led us to become classical musicians—in that case probably all four of us will saying something, each of us in turn about what led us to play our instruments, our family backgrounds, and so forth.

SundayArts: Of the club dates you’ve done so far, are there things that surprise you about the reaction of the audience? Do they react in the same way as the audience up at Lincoln Center?

Drucker: Yes, I would say that’s probably true. And you have to remember that in a club setting the space is more intimate than in many concert halls where we play. So what I’m trying to compare it to is the atmosphere when we play in other intimate settings, like a house concert for patrons of a chamber music series, and I have to admit the atmosphere is quite different.

SundayArts: Looking at the repertoire listed at Joe’s Pub, it looks like you will be performing parts of whole pieces, and it appears to be a shorter concert.

Drucker: Yes. We also don’t play any single piece or movement of a piece that’s extremely long. That would be the modus operandi in a situation like that: to have variety and a whole program of music that is not that long. I think were asked to provide 40 minutes of music and 20 minutes of speaking.

SundayArts: Over the years—the quartet has been in existence since 1976—has the percentage of time that you’re expected to speak been gradually increasing?

Drucker: I’m not sure. I remember speaking before concerts early in our career, too. This is in concert halls, too—not Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center, we hardly ever would speak at places like that. But out of town and at summer music festivals. I remember doing that at the Vermont Mozart Festival, which was our first summer residency in the early years. That was almost a given, every time we would play a concert, to say something about the music.

SundayArts: At the Emerson’s website, there’s a YouTube clip of a little film about how the Emerson recorded the Mendelssohn Octet—even though there are only four of you. Can you tell me how you accomplished that? How did the quartet decide to do that?

Drucker: I can’t remember who suggested it, I think it was our cellist, David Finckel, or maybe our producer, Da-Hong Seetoo, It took a little while until all four of us agreed, a very little while. There was a test we did first. We were in the process of recording all the Mendelssohn string quartets. At that point it wasn’t quite sure whether or not we would record the octet. So we did a a very informal test at the end of one of our recording sessions of one of the string quartets, with the four of us playing just the first four or five lines—28 measures or so—playing one set of parts, and then playing the other set of parts. Which is not exactly the way we did it in the real recording sessions, but we just wanted to see what it would sound like if there were an overlay, and I guess we had to have headphones for that test. We certainly had to have them for the second layer of the octet later on. And it sounded pretty good.

So we were convinced, and decided when we get around to this—toward the end of recording the complete cycle of Mendelssohn quartets—we will really attempt to make it work. And then it got a little more complicated, because Da-Hong, our recording producer and engineer—he’s sort of the two rolled into one—he had to build a more powerful computer to accommodate all the information he was processing. The main thing is that in order to get an accurate spatial image, so to speak, of eight people on a stage or in a recording studio, he had to have us recording it in different places depending which roles we were playing.

SundayArts: Different physical places in the recording studio?

Drucker: In other words, when we record a string quartet, we have sort of a modified string quartet position. But it’s the same position all the time. The only changes are if we have to make certain changes for the balance. But for the octet, we had to have basically eight positions onstage, and we recorded a first layer. Now there is a tricky part conceptually that I have to explain. Before we got to the serious recording sessions, I went through the score and I tried to figure out a way to get a first layer, meaning with only four instruments playing, that would have maximum possible continuity. So that did not mean simply my playing first violin, Phil Setzer playing second violin, Larry Dutton playing first viola, and David Finckel playing first cello. It doesn’t work that way in the way the piece is written. It is a marvelously integrated piece where the thematic material is constantly being passed from one instrument to another. So especially Larry and David had to switch constantly between the first viola and the first cello parts and the second viola and second cello parts—in order to get some sort of musical continuity in that first layer. Phil Setzer had to switch to some extent between first and second violin parts.

To my relief, I realized that I could record that bear of a first violin part almost entirely in the first layer—99 percent of what I have to do in the first layer was the first violin part, which meant that I didn’t have to worry physically about having headphones on my head while I was playing this virtuosic first violin part. I was able to do that in the first layer. Then I felt much more relaxed when two months later we were recording—this is what we call the second pass, or what I would call a second layer—when I was playing fourth violin, which was easier to deal with headphones. The other thing that might not be obvious immediately is that we had to fully edit the first layer before we had the second set of sessions to do the second layer. Because we had to have something absolutely rock-solid to record with.

SundayArts: When you head up to the Mostly Mozart Festival on August 21, you’ve got the Schubert Piano Quintet in A major, the Mozart “Hunt” Quartet, and then this piece, Terra Memoria, by Kaija Saariaho. Could you tell me a little bit about the background of the Saariaho piece? I read that this was written for the group after Phil Setzer’s mother passed away.

Drucker: It was written for the Emerson Quartet for our series at Carnegie Hall—I think that was on the last concert we played when we had our Prospectus series there in June 2007. In the year preceding that, when Saariaho was beginning to write the quartet, she was in most contact with Phil; they had had lunch together once or twice in Paris, because that’s where she lives. Then she found out from Phil that his mother had passed away. Actually he lost both of his parents in the same season; she died in October 2006, I guess, and his father, who had Alzheimer’s, died in January of 2007. So it was a very tough year for him. She felt what he was going through, and I guess somehow it formed her creative process while composing.

But I have noticed reading her program notes for her own piece that she doesn’t mention that she also had a family tragedy to deal with—actually much more of a tragedy, in a way, because it involved a young person, a niece of hers, who was hit by a car in Washington, D.C., and died. I don’t know exactly when that happened or how close she was to the niece. But of course it must have been a great shock to her whole family, and I think between Phil’s loss and the loss of her niece, she had emotional material to work with, and she somehow she transformed into this musical expression. I think the most interesting thing about it from a purely musical point of view the way she describes it, musical and perhaps psychological, is that the material—and I’m using the word “material” the way a writer or composer would—the material of the people’s lives is finished, there is nothing to add to it, because their lives are over. But our memories of them, our perceptions of them, keep changing, after they’re gone. And so she tried to create a musical contrast between a fixed point, which I guess is represented by repetition of certain material, and then more of a variation technique, that is somehow interspersed with or alternating with those more fixed points in the music.

SundayArts: Your description gives both a personal and a pretty good technical way to describe Saariaho’s piece. With music, that’s hard to do.

Drucker: I find it kind of interesting that there are these stereotypes that people have about “uptown” and “downtown.” And they would tend to think that music presented downtown is going to have more of a cutting edge than music presented uptown. That’s not the case in these two events for us, because the music we’re playing uptown is a mixture of old music and very new music. And perhaps it was not always the case at Mostly Mozart, but Kaija Saariaho is the composer in residence at Mostly Mozart this season. I think the latest music we’ve ever played in the Mostly Mozart Festival before this—I could be wrong, because we’ve played there many times—but the latest music I remember playing was Brahms and Dvorák. Which in itself, to play Brahms and Dvorák, is already a century removed from Mozart, or just about a century removed, and stylistically quite different. But of course it’s much more different to play music by Saariaho, its sonic texture and surface is extremely different. But it’s something we would not play when we’re trying to introduce classical music to a fringe audience of young people who are a club who may have not had that much experience of the currents in music history that led up to music that sounds like Saariaho.

SundayArts: And yet on the other hand, for new Yorkers, who’ve been going to Mostly Mozart for years and years, these innovations are very exciting; they’re really ready to experience some of this newer stuff. It really has got people talking, that Kaija Saariaho is the composer in residence at a festival called Mostly Mozart.

Drucker: Kaija Saariaho wrote a lovely essay for this program, by the way, describing her personal relationship to Mozart from her earliest years as a music student, and the ways in which she reacted to his music, and perhaps the inspiration she drew—although I think her main inspiration from Mozart was in the realm of opera rather than instrumental music, if I recall correctly.

SundayArts: In terms of newer music, are there commissions or new pieces coming down the pike for you in the next or so?

Drucker: Yes. First of all, I should mention that Kaija Saariaho’s piece, Terra Memoria, was not the only one we premiered in 2007. We also played a string quartet by Bright Sheng, for the first time in October 2007 at SUNY Stony Brook, where we’re in residence. It was commissioned by a consortium of three schools, I believe: Stony Brook, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where Bright Sheng teaches, and Stanford University. Stanford has participated in a consortium to commission pieces for us at least once in the past, maybe twice. The one time I’m sure of is Edgar Meyer’s bass quintet, which he wrote in order to play with us. That was in the mid-1990s. We have a commission from Lawrence Dillon, who is on the faculty of the North Carolina School of the Arts. I think that will be sometime in 2010. We have Pierre Jalbert, who is in residence at Rice University in Houston; the Houston Friends of Chamber Music has commissioned us to do a piece by Jalbert. Those are just two that come to mind readily.

SundayArts: Could you talk about the dynamic of playing in a quartet like this? I would imagine it is like a second family for you, since you’ve been together so long. How do you communicate—is there sort of a shorthand that you’ve developed by now?

Drucker: Yes, I think there is a shorthand, I’m not aware of it all the time as a shorthand, because I think there is, just like in a family, a whole repertoire of private jokes or associations, even if they’re not humorous: things that people draw on, a kind of a common fund of experience and ways of reacting to things. Certainly we have that in the quartet. And just like in a family, both positive and sometimes negative, it’s usually easy to predict what the other person is going to do or say. That can be a strength in a quartet, because it means that when we play onstage, it’s easy for us to imagine what the other person is going to do. If it’s a piece that we don’t know, then of course we need to rehearse it more. If it’s a piece we’ve been playing for a long time, we’re used to the way we all play that piece; I’m not saying that it never changes, and when we rehearse we reevaluate decisions we’ve made about tempos, bowings, articulations, dynamics. But generally, it’s easy to play together in repertoire that we’re familiar with, because we know how the other people play in the group.

SundayArts: Is there any secret to how long the quartet has lasted, and played at such a consistently high level for such a long time? What factors make it work so well?

Drucker: In terms of getting along and dealing with quartet life, year after year, we always say that a sense of humor is quite important. Because things happen when you’re on tour. A quartet tour is never controlled to the nth detail, the nth degree, the way a symphony orchestra tour is. I remember back in 1987, we had already been touring in Europe a number of times, but it was one of our first big summer tours. And we had already been dealing with a number of mishaps, and I can’t remember anymore what they were, but we crossed a couple of times with the, I think it was the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Orpheus ensemble, in various summer festivals. And we were astonished to see that the Philadelphia Orchestra had a little booklet, all neatly printed up, with every single detail of what was going to happen, in terms of the logistics of that tour. And it was so different from the way we were traveling. So as you can imagine things happen that are not exactly the way we want them to, when we are traveling. And sometimes we’ll get annoyed and exasperated, but we’ll also be able to take a step back, each person individually, or several laughing at the other person, at something mildly unpleasant that just happened. The ability to laugh at oneself and with the others in the group is something that keeps us going.

I think also success is a lubricant; we’ve got a good thing going, and we were aware of that the first few years and that meant that we had more and more invested in trying to keep this enterprise afloat and trying to plan wisely for the future.

SundayArts: I’m continually amazed by the variety of the challenges that the Emerson takes on.

Drucker: Well, the string quartet repertoire itself has a great deal of variety—it’s huge, and there’s so much great music within it—that in itself is a factor that keeps us going, the dedication to the music. But that alone wouldn’t be enough. I think that if we were struggling after five years and it didn’t look like we had a lot of prospects of success and also weren’t getting along very well, I think we would have fallen apart, like a lot of other groups.

SundayArts: Obviously you tour a lot in a group like this. When you return home to New York, do the quartet members go to clubs or concerts or what, on their nights off?

Drucker: We play about 100 concerts a year, and we have some teaching and recording. We all have separate lives, first of all. So I can answer you as accurately as possible from what I know of all of us. Let’s see … David Finckel probably has the most active life apart from the quartet. As you know he and his wife, Wu Han, run the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and a festival in California, Music at Menlo. In addition to that, I can tell you that David has enormous energy, so that when we come home from tours, he often wants to go hear a concert, and it’s not necessarily one of the concerts under his auspices at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. It might be something else altogether. He always wants to be near the pulse of what’s happening musically in the New York scene when he’s home.

I have to admit for myself, that’s not the main thing I feel like doing when I get home—I want to be with my family, I tend to go to theater more than I go to concerts. If I’m going to concerts, I will tend to want to go a symphony orchestra concert, or maybe an opera, rather than chamber music. When I’m not playing chamber music, I don’t have a huge appetite to hear other people play it. That may be a shortcoming, but that’s just the way I am. [Laughs] Phil Setzer also likes theater quite a lot, he and his wife. Larry Dutton—well, he’s got three kids, while each of the rest of us has only one child. He’s got three, including one very young one, maybe three years old now. So of all of us, Larry does the most with athletics and sports—his kids are very into sports. My son is very into sports, but I don’t do as much of that with him, I just try to stay physically fit by getting aerobic exercise and stuff like that. I tend to be a little bit more sedentary when I’m at home, after all the traveling that we do. I want to be home watching a DVD or something with my family. Musically, outside of the Emerson Quartet, I do other things. I play a Bach concerto next month for Berkshire Bach. I usually do their New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day concerts—Brandenburg Concertos. Actually, Joe Silverstein and I are playing the Bach Double together on New Year’s Eve for them, and then we’re each playing one of the Bach violin concertos on the same program.

Phil has done a whole slew of festivals during this month off that we’ve had from the quartet. I’ve done only one during the time off; he’s up in Cape Cod at a festival right now. And Larry does some other playing too—he has a string trio, too, with Robert McDuffie and Ralph Kirshbaum, which is active for a week or two at different times of the season. And I often play concerts with my wife, Roberta Cooper a cellist. During our vacation, we’ve played at her Mohawk Trails concerts in Massachusetts.

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.
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