By Nick Kalantzopoulos
The Emerson String Quartet has been performing for over 40 years, and for every single concert, violinist Philip Setzer has been on stage. When the music department at Stony Brook University was alerted that he was too ill to perform at the Staller Center on Jan. 31, they could not find a single replacement; so instead, they found three.
Colin Brookes, Emily Smith and Alison Rowe, music students seeking to finish their requirements for a Doctorate of Musical Arts at Stony Brook, were chosen to play with violinist Eugene Drucker, violist Lawrence Dutton and cellist Paul Watkins.
“I feel so incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to play with Emerson String Quartet,”Rowe said. “They are all such amazing musicians and working with them as colleagues was indescribable. I always imagined playing with a group like Emerson, but I was totally shocked when Paul Watkins asked me.”
Rowe, a 28 year-old cellist, currently teaches students ages 9-14 while working on her doctorate, and performs with a string quartet of her own on campus. Brookes, a 28 year-old violist, has also followed the lead of his mentors, with the Ulysses String Quartet, an ensemble that he founded with three of his colleagues two years ago. Still, the chance to perform with the Emerson String Quartet was not taken lightly for him.
“My teacher Larry Dutton reached out to me about playing a concert with the Emerson,” Brookes said. “To me, the Emerson Quartet represents a landmark in the evolution of string quartets. Their contributions, both in performance, recording and teaching have really influenced my own enthusiasm and ultimate decision to pursue a career as a chamber musician. Sharing the stage with them in a collaborative way is absolutely one of the highlights of my career so far.”
Smith, a 29 year-old violinist, who received both her undergraduate degree and masters from Juilliard, mentioned that the faculty in the Stony Brook music department is what brought her to the school, and what still teaches her today.
“Its always a learning experience performing,” Smith said. “There is a lot to gain from performing with our teachers as well.”
Stony Brook offers doctorate degrees for performance in 16 different instruments. The music school also offers Ph.D. degrees in History-Theory, Ethnomusicology, and Composition.
Members of the quartet also appreciated the opportunity to work with the three students.
“Part of our activity at Stony Brook is participation in the so-called Spring Festival toward the end of the spring semester, during which each of us collaborates with a student group,” said Drucker. “The reason that we were able to substitute a collaborative program on January 31st instead of the planned Emerson String Quartet program is that three of us were scheduled to perform with the students.”
The Emerson String Quartet was formed in 1969 by Setzer and Drucker, who were both Juilliard students at the time. Although, the current four musicians have only been together since 2013 (when the original cellist David Finckel left that year), the Quartet has held a residency at Stony Brook for 15 years.
“I was doing some teaching at Stony Brook,” Setzer said. “Gil Kalish, the head of the pianofaculty and actually head of all performance faculty at Stony Brook had the idea to see if the university could create a Quartet-in- Residence to bring the Emerson Quartet to the school. Gil spoke to then provost Robert McGrath and then president Shirley Kenny to see if there was a chance. They both were enthusiastic and helped make it happen.”
The Emerson String Quartet has won nine Grammy Awards, Musical America’s “Ensemble of the Year” and the Avery Fisher Prize, an award given to American musicians who have demonstrated outstanding achievement in classical music. The group will be whole once again for their final performance in the Staller Center at the end of the school year. That event will take place on Tuesday, April 4, at 8 pm.