PERSPECTIVE — After presenting two culminating concerts Oct. 21 and 22 at New York’s Alice Tully Hall, the Emerson String Quartet will disband after 47 years, having earned an unquestioned place among the great such ensembles of the last 100 years. While these performances mark the end of an extraordinary era, they also raise questions about what’s next.
Who will be the next Emerson? Obviously, there are other top-drawer ensembles like the Takács Quartet or Kronos Quartet, the latter of which specializes in contemporary music, already operating on a similarly high level. But are there younger or mid-career ensembles ready to seize the Emerson’s mantle? Or is it even possible in today’s changing classical-music world to attain the kind of fame that the Emerson did? And if so, what does it take to get to that level?
Although people are always sounding the death knell for classical music and there is a natural tendency to rhapsodize about the past when string quartets like the Guarneri and Budapest ruled the scene, today’s string-quartet world might be as healthy as it has ever been. It’s easy to name a dozen first-rate groups at work, and some clearly have the potential to attain the Emerson’s status.
New York’s Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center is presenting four of the best such groups — the Calidore String Quartet, Schumann Quartet, Quartetto di Cremona, and Escher String Quartet — in February and March during what it is calling Winter Festival: Quartet Panorama. David Finckel, one of the society’s co-artistic directors and a former Emerson cellist, said the decision to showcase these four groups after the Emerson’s final concerts and before the farewell appearance of another longtime ensemble, the Orion String Quartet, in April was deliberate.
“They are playing in this spot in the season not only to share their incredible skill, charisma, and musicianship, but also to assure listeners that there is indeed quartet life after Emerson and Orion, and it’s of the highest quality,” Finckel said via email.
Other young and mid-career groups with Emerson potential include the Danish Quartet, the Dudok Quartet Amsterdam, and the Verona Quartet, which serves as quartet-in-residence at the Oberlin College and Conservatory. On Nov. 17, the Dover Quartet, which was mentored among others by Arnold Steinhardt, former first violinist of the esteemed Guarneri String Quartet, will release a boxed set of its complete recordings of the Beethoven string quartets — a defining milestone for any quartet. “They have demonstrated not only the talent, but the stamina to keep up the relentless schedule that touring requires and the imagination to keep every performance an exciting experience for their audience,” said Blair Milton, founding artistic director of the Winter Chamber Music Series at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. “I haven’t heard another group as likely as this to take over the mantle from the Guarneri Quartet.”
What do these groups have in common? Many were mentored by some or all the members of leading quartets from the past, like the Emerson, Guarneri, and Alban Berg quartets. Many have won important competitions like the Banff (Alberta) International String Quartet Competition. And many have secured university residencies that provided a home base and critical support, like the Verona Quartet. All of them regularly appear on top chamber-music series in the United States and Europe.
Camden Shaw, cellist of the Dover, said the group does aspire to be an Emerson-caliber group, though it doesn’t typically think about its future in that way. “There are so many different lenses through which to view what it means to be at the level of the Emerson Quartet,” he said. “You can talk about financially or fame or whatever it is, but I don’t think on those levels so much as we certainly share the dream of pushing the level of the art as high as possible.” He hopes the Dover can be around long enough and be “impactful enough” to build a lasting legacy and be seen as extending the lineage of the great foursomes that came before it.
It is certainly true that many general performing-arts series have cut back or limited the amount of chamber music they present, and some longtime presenters have gone defunct, like the Tuesday Musical Concert Series in Omaha, which ceased operations in 2015 after 123 years. But new series are rising to take their places, and others continue to thrive, like the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society or the Friends of Chamber Music series in cities like Portland, Ore., and Denver.
Within this changing landscape, Shaw and others believe it is still possible for quartets to build their name like the Emerson did in the 1980s and 1990s. “It may be,” he said, “that the chamber-music infrastructure has adjusted to actually be a little more egalitarian and not rely as much necessarily on the big concert presenters. We certainly feel there is a lot of work, and the industry as a whole seems to be doing very well.” Milton shares that optimism. “It seems that there has been a resurgence of interest in chamber music in the last decade,” he said. “People turn to music in times of duress and uncertainty; we seem to have that in abundance lately.”
At the same time, said Edward Dusinberre, first violinist of the Takács Quartet, many presenters who might have been hesitant to offer anything but familiar classics are now eager to embrace new projects. When the Takács proposed commissioning a new work by violist and composer Nokuthula Ngwenyama, many presenters were immediately eager to sign up, and the group is taking the new work, Flow, on tour this season.
What is more challenging in today’s climate is recording, which was a huge boon to the Emerson during its early years. Many legacy labels are no longer around or have significantly reduced their releases. But today’s groups have persisted, often shifting to smaller, more entrepreneurial labels, like the non-profit Cedille Records in Chicago, and finding ways to still make albums. “Today, many of our young artists are indeed recording for what used to be small labels and are now very important ones,” Finckel said. “The business deals may be different, but recordings are coming out.”
If a string quartet is to reach the level of the Emerson, it is essential that it remain in action for a significant period of time, something that is hard to do. In 2018, for example, the well-regarded Chiara String Quartet went out of existence after 18 years. “Quartets are pretty fragile organisms that need everything to be right in their ecosystem to survive. It can be personal, musical, financial, or career problems or any combination that can cause a quartet to disband,” Finckel said. But even the most stable groups inevitably experience changes in personnel, and Shaw believes such changes can be healthy. The Dover had its first such shift in February 2023, when it chose Julianne Lee as its new violist following the one-year appointment of Hezekiah Leung. “I can definitely say that I’m very happy with the way that the quartet is feeling now, and the future feels very bright,” he said.
What is clear is that whoever rises up to fill the void left by the Emerson will not simply be a copy of the Emerson, just as that group had a distinct identity from its predecessors. “The beauty of string quartets is that any four musicians who dedicate the amount of energy and time necessary to sustain a quartet evolve a unique identity,” said Dusinberre. “The Emerson, Juilliard, Guarneri, Tokyo, and Cleveland quartets blazed trails in their own ways. None of those groups are replaceable — their musical interpretations remain unique.”
Here is a look at the four quartets that the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center is featuring as part of its Winter Festival: Quartet Panorama in February and March 2024 (for information and tickets, go here):
- Calidore Quartet. This New York-based group was established at the Colburn School in Los Angeles, and it has won several important awards including a 2018 Avery Fisher Career Grant and the $100,000 grand prize and the 2016 M-Prize Chamber Arts Competition. Its recent release of Beethoven’s late quartets received a five-star rating from the BBC Music Magazine, and its complete set of recordings of this pivotal cycle is due for release in 2024-25 on Signum Records.
- Schumann Quartet. It would be easy to think this quartet’s name was inspired by Robert and Clara Schumann, but the appellation actually comes from the last name of the brothers who founded the group in 2007. The German quartet was mentored by the noted Alban Berg Quartet and received the BBC Music Magazine’s 2016 Newcomer of the Year Award for its release, Mozart Ives Verdi. Veit Hertenstein, who joined the group in 2022, is its third violist.
- Quartetto di Cremona. Finckel calls this Italian ensemble “the heir apparent to another of the great quartets of the world, Quartetto Italiano.” The group was formed in 2000 and studied with members of that older Italian quartet, as well as the Alban Berg. The group’s next recording will be its version of J.S. Bach’s The Art of Fugue performed with seven instruments.
- Escher Quartet. After its formation in 2005, the Escher was championed by the Emerson Quartet and invited by Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman to serve as quartet-in-residence at their respective young-artist festivals. In 2023-24, the group will tour the celebrated set of quartets by Béla Bartók, including a performance of all six in a program expected to last 3¼ hours with two intermissions.
Here are four other young and mid-career quartets that have the potential to attain the level of the Emerson:
- Dover Quartet. This Grammy Award-nominated quartet was formed in 2008 at the Curtis Institute of Music, where it has served as ensemble-in-residence since 2020. It swept all the prizes at the 2013 Banff International String Quartet competition and took the grand and first prizes at the Fischoff Chamber Music Competition.
- Dudok Quartet Amsterdam. The group plays on instruments on loan from the Dutch Musical Instruments Foundation, and it changes the bows and strings its uses to conform to the music it is performing. Its well-received recording of the Brahms quartets was played on gut strings. Though still primarily focused on Europe, the group made its American debut in 2018 and has played at the Park Avenue Armory in New York.
- Danish Quartet. This Scandinavian ensemble, known for the free spirit of its playing, marked its 20th anniversary during the 2022-23 season. Early in its history, it was already being cited as one of the world’s top quartets, and that praise has only solidified as the group has matured, including its selection as the 2020 ensemble of the year by Musical America.
- Verona Quartet. Mentored by the Cleveland, Juilliard, and Pacifica Quartets, the Verona (a name that pays tribute to Shakespeare) won top prizes at several significant contests, including the 2015 Concert Artists Guild Competition. Winner of Chamber Music America’s 2020 Cleveland Quartet Award, the group serves as quartet-in-residence at the Oberlin College and Conservatory.