Philip Setzer admits he’s heard one question a lot these days: When will the violinist and his colleagues in the renowned Emerson String Quartet call it a day? After 43 years together — with only one change in personnel — the ensemble has never slowed down, touring and recording on a regular basis.
The subject of retirement has come up among the four players, he said. But only briefly.
“As long as we’re still good, and we’re still getting along, we’ll keep going,” Setzer noted in a conversation from his New York home. “We haven’t set a date or anything. We’re all still in our 60s, but I’m 68. We’re getting up there.”
At 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 10, the group will appear at the Lensic Performing Arts Center. Fans of the quartet who attend the concert might notice how years of concertizing have taken their toll: Setzer and his colleagues no longer stand when they play. “I’ve been having knee troubles lately,” he said. After 15 years as the only prominent quartet to eschew chairs, Setzer, violinist Eugene Drucker, and violist Lawrence Dutton have joined cellist Paul Watkins (who replaced David Finckel in 2013) at chair level.
But then, another unique visual element hasn’t changed: Setzer and Drucker will continue to trade places in the first and second chairs from one work to the next. “Gene and I used to swap parts back when we were students [at Juilliard, both studying with Oscar Shumsky]. We go back 50 years doing that. It was a great way to learn each violin part. Funny thing, both of our fathers played second violin — Gene’s in a string quartet, mine in the Cleveland Orchestra.”
Whether standing or sitting, the Emerson has long enjoyed an international reputation as one of the world’s great quartets. With that, the group understands that the expectations of audiences and critics remain high. “It’s always a challenge to play this music at the highest level,” Setzer said. But that’s what the players have been doing since Setzer helped to found the quartet in New York in 1976. Numerous honors have come their way, including the coveted Avery Fisher Prize and being named Ensemble of the Year by the industry publication Musical America. The group has released 30 CDs, nine of which have garnered Grammy awards.
Does Setzer ever pull one of those old recordings off the shelf, just for comparison’s sake? “No, I don’t listen to them,” he said. “Only the particular one we’re currently working on. But I’m sure we’ve changed over the years. You have to change, of course. And you should. My playing certainly has changed. I started out imitating other groups. I tried playing like Robert Mann [of the Juilliard String Quartet] or Arnold Steinhardt [of the Guarneri String Quartet]. But you find your own voice over the years.”
Friday’s concert includes works by two early masters of the string quartet: Beethoven, in the first of his three familiar Rasumovskyquartets, and Mozart, represented by his A-major Quartet, the fifth of six he dedicated to Haydn. “The Mozart is not performed that often,” Setzer said. “Maybe because it’s very difficult.” He noted its graceful slow movement, an extended set of variations showcasing individual players.
The quartet will also play English composer Benjamin Britten’s String Quartet No. 3. “It’s a very important work. This was the last piece he wrote,” the violinist said. “It was literally written on his deathbed. In the final movement, he takes his leave of this world.” Aware that the Britten may not be familiar to his audience, Setzer indicated that he might say a few words about the piece. “I know it’s become a fad for quartet players to talk onstage. And I’m OK with that. People like it when you talk to them, as long as it doesn’t turn into a lecture.”
Setzer acknowledged that the one-time stuffy world of chamber music is opening up, led by a new generation of energetic young groups making waves. For example, the Vision String Quartet not only stands in concert, but plays from memory, including even complex Bartók compositions.
That’s a bit of a stretch for Setzer and his colleagues. “Actually, we have played the Shostakovich 15th Quartet without scores, but that’s about it.”
The Emerson is not merely aware of the new look of music performance — they have also become innovators, themselves. Recently, Setzer collaborated with stage director James Glossman in a theatrical presentation bearing the intriguing title Shostakovich and the Black Monk: A Russian Fantasy.
“It’s about the 40-year struggle by Shostakovich to write an opera on Chekhov’s  novella, The Black Monk. Theater has always been a love of mine,” Setzer said. “I got the idea for it by playing [Shostakovich’s] music, particularly his last two quartets. They’re like little dramas, and we are, in a sense, four characters in a play. I’m very excited about it, because it gets people who are used to attending a concert to experience theater, and audiences familiar with theater to experience a concert.” ◀
▼ Performance Santa Fe presents The Emerson String Quartet
▼ 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 10
▼ Lensic Performing Arts Center, 211 W. San Francisco St.
▼ $14.50-$110, 505-988-1234, tickets.ticketssantafe.org