Philip Setzer interview: keeping it fresh

As the Emerson Quartet completes its Chamber Music Northwest residency, a founder talks about new music, a new music/theater project, and what great violinists really think about onstage

by ALICE HARDESTY

I had never been to a chamber music concert until one time in the early 1980s a friend persuaded me to go the the Renwick Gallery in Washington DC to hear, in the words of the Washington Post’s music critic at the time, “The young and splendid Emerson String Quartet.” Surrounded by huge Old Master paintings, my friend Anne and I sat spellbound while these four musicians wove their Schubert and Mendelssohn tapestries. I had enjoyed the grandeur of symphonic music as a lucky student recipient of free tickets, and attended the Washington Opera regularly with my brother. But I had never before experienced the subtle intimacy of chamber music, and I was hooked.

The Emerson Quartet are Chamber Music Northwest’s Artists in Residence this season. Photo: Tom Emerson.

After 40 years of performing together, the Emersons are, well, older (as are we all), but undoubtedly even more splendid. I’ve been fortunate to interview every member of the Quartet, the most recent being the modest, virtuoso violinist Philip Setzer. One of the wonderful things about chamber musicians is that they are all virtuosi, and yet each is an integral part of the family comprising the ensemble.

With the Quartet wrapping up its two-year run as Artists-in-Residence at Portland‘s Chamber Music Northwest, it‘s time to complete my series of Emerson interviews. Just before he left Portland, we talked about old music (especially Shostakovich), new music, violinists who compose, communicating with audiences (and vice versa), Setzer’s role in the Emersons’ recent explorations of combinations of music and theater, and much more.

Staying the Course

First I wanted him to tell us the secret of the group’s remarkable longevity.

Alice Hardesty: Phil, you have been playing with the same group for 40 years. Congratulations!

Philip Setzer: I couldn’t find any other work.

That’s highly unlikely for someone who gets other offers all the time. He’s appeared with various symphony orchestras, he teaches, writes, records, composes, and in his spare time thinks up brilliant theater pieces.

Emerson Quartet violinist Phillip Setzer. Photo: Judy Blankenship.

Setzer acknowledged that it took a while to smooth out all the bumps. “There were really rough times in the beginning when we weren’t having much success, and we didn’t yet have a recording contract,” he remembered. “Individual and group insecurities can lead to conflict, but I think we never allowed things to get too negative. Each of us had a sense that we had the potential to do something with this group. Whenever we started to go off track, somebody in the group would say, ‘Stop! We’ve got to believe in what we’re doing.’ And it wasn’t just one person who was the peacemaker.”  He added that some groups haven’t quite figured out the solution to their personalities and chemistry, and he wonders how long they’re going to last.

Setzer noted that some members split off from their groups for understandable reasons, like the punishing travel schedules.

“Believe me, that’s something that has entered all of our minds,“ he admits. “Do we really want to be on the road and away from home so much? And the travel industry isn’t making it any easier.”

As he gets older, Setzer spends less time sightseeing and more time doing all kinds of exercises, some for his knee, which will soon undergo surgery, and also does stretches, warm-ups, and exercises for strength and dexterity in his hands. All this before he even starts working on the music. Adding to the fatigue, but something to which the Quartet is firmly dedicated, is attending post-concert receptions. “We’ve developed some really strong ties with the people who support chamber music and they want to have us back. It’s a way of thanking the people who pay our salary!”

Communicating with the Audience

Chamber musicians communicate with the audience through body language as well as in their music. “We’re actors, too,“ Setzer explained. “You can’t just go out and play your music, as you can’t be an actor and just go out and say your lines. But it has to be done in a truthful way.” It’s not, as he says, “‘This is chamber music and we have to look around at each other all the time. Drives me crazy.” There’s a balance between keeping one’s head buried in the music and being theatrical. “You’ve seen me perform. I don’t move around a lot and I don’t put on a show, but I’m aware of the audience. Keep this in mind when you go to concerts: You’ll see that some people perform really well, but you don’t have the sense that they have the sense that you’re there. I think that’s the key.” [Emphasis mine.]

Communication between audience and musicians can go both ways. Not only does the audience show appreciation with applause and cheers, but by being respectful, especially during the music’s tender moments. During last year’s Summer Festival when the Emerson played to a packed house in Kaul Auditorium, the Quartet performed Haydn’s String Quartet Op. 76, No. 4, nicknamed the “Sunrise” due to the gentle rising of the first violin’s melody over sustained chords from the other instruments at the beginning of the piece. Almost immediately an audience member let go with an obnoxious series of coughs. The music suddenly wound down and Setzer addressed the audience: “Coughing is what you’re supposed to do between movements or during the intermission, not during the music! It’s very distracting.”

After the concert I thanked him. He was apologetic and said that he had had a rough day. But there must be hundreds of others who would also have thanked him, and I know that if someone as kind as Philip Setzer would be moved to speak out, the effect on musicians is severe.

What Violinists Think About

I’ve always been interested in what musicians think about while they’re playing. There’s a romantic in me that wonders if they can sense the composer standing over their shoulder. Well, maybe, but here are some the things violinists like Philip Setzer think about:

How is the sound in the hall?
Is the lighting OK?
Is the temperature too hot or too cold? 
Is the violin behaving?
How does the bow feel on the string? Enough rosin?
What are the other guys doing? Are they distracting me?
Is that chord out of tune? Was I out of tune?

“Sometimes on those rare occasions when everything is working, and I’m kind of in a groove, it’s a wonderful feeling,” he said. But the audience doesn’t always interpret it that way. “When I really feel like I’m riding the wave, sometimes it comes across that it’s too easy.” Or if he’s struggling, “they may think it’s something profound, but for me it’s like I’m holding on for dear life!” It’s complicated.

New Music and Violinist Composers

Chamber Music Northwest’s July 7 New@Noon concert featured five newish composers, including the Emerson’s violinists, Setzer and Eugene Drucker, who played their own works and took part in a panel discussion afterward. Setzer’s 1976 Elegy for Violin and Piano was a memorial to his recently deceased teacher and mentor, at whose house in the Vermont countryside he had spent some idyllic times. Describing the experience of a vivid sunset, along with memories of his beloved friend, he seemed to relive the emotions of beauty and loss, which must have informed his music. “I’m not a very religious person,” he said. “My religion is music — and nature.”

Composers Gabriela Smith, Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer participated in a post-concert panel discussion at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Judy Blankenship.

Describing his elegy as “a little bit of Debussy, a little bit of Ives, and a little bit of Mahler… and a little bit of me,“ he acknowledged that such a primarily tonal piece wouldn’t have been acceptable to the academic music establishment at that time. “I know that this piece came from a very deep place, and I wasn’t going to write an atonal elegy for this group of people!” He thinks of it as the beginning of his composing career, and he hopes to get back to composing when he has more time.

I brought up the phrase John Zech repeats every day on APM’s Composer’s Datebook: “All music was once new.”

“That’s a bit trite,” Setzer replied, “but it’s something we all need to remember. After all, the late quartets of Beethoven weren’t accepted. They used to be called the ‘crazy quartets,’ created by a madman. I’m not even talking about the public! I’m talking about musicians, well into the 20th century, who said that Beethoven was out of his mind and so deaf that he really didn’t know what he was doing. It wasn’t until the Budapest Quartet started playing the Beethoven cycles and recording them [in the 1930s] that people started really accepting them.”

Nowadays Setzer sees a lot of interest in new music, especially by younger people. “I guess it’s considered cool, and I think that’s good. But I don’t think it should take the place of a great performance of Schubert. There’s room for both. You don’t just go to contemporary art exhibitions. If you’re an art lover, you go to the Met and look at the classics as well. Certainly all the great artists, composers, and writers are drawing on the past, even it if it’s a reaction to it!

“I think starting in the ‘90s or even a little earlier, composers shifted a little to writing music where they could really communicate with people. It wasn’t just communicating with their colleagues and their followers. And it doesn’t have to be dumbed down, but we can still reach out and it can be OK to have something romantic, or neo-romantic, or neo-classical, or neo-baroque. Some of Bartok’s music has a lot of clash in it, a lot of dissonance, but there’s always the folk music underneath and there’s some tonality there.”

The panel, which included 28-year-old composer Gabriella Smith, agreed that contemporary composers have more flexibility now than they did in the 1970s, when Setzer composed his elegy. “Lately it’s more of an open field for composers,“ he said. “It used to be that anything tonal was considered passé. For example, Charles Wuorinen, somebody I have a lot of respect for, was very dismissive of anything that wasn’t in his world. I think that for a number of years, composers were writing music for a very small group of aficionados, and not really for the general public. It was almost: if the general audience liked it there was something wrong with it!”

He muttered sotto voce, “I’ll probably get letters about this!”

Shostakovich

One composer Setzer most admires is Dmitri Shostakovich. “Basically, Shostakovich wrote tonal music, but you’ll see that there’s a lot of 12-tone music in his late quartets. At that time [the 1970s and ‘80s] the music of Shostakovich was derided by most musicians in the West. He was considered a Soviet musician who was under the pressure of the regime, and that he had to write what he wrote. There were long stretches of it that seemed banal.”

The quartet played Shostakovich’s quartets No. 14 and No. 8 in CMNW’s Summer Festival this year. Setzer talked about the beleaguered Russian composer with admiration and affection that I shared. He’s about to read Julian Barnes’s recent novel about Shostakovich during his recuperation from knee surgery. I told him I didn’t like the book because Barnes gives us a Shostakovich who is emotionally distant, almost flat. And, moreover, he hardly mentions the quartets, which critics agree are the most personal and free of Stalinist propaganda of any of his work. But certainly the effects of the regime on Shostakovich’s life are reflected in the quartets, particularly in Quartet No. 8.

Setzer suddenly raps three times on the underside of the table. I’m startled.

“Do you know what this means?”

“No.”

“The three knocks. Rostropovich told me what it means. If you were in a public space with people sitting around and someone came in who was a potential informer, the person you were with would knock three times under the table. It meant shut up. Be careful. That’s in the fourth movement of the Eighth Quartet.”  He sings the familiar passage, “Dee, daah, hummm, POP POP POP.” Then he repeats it, just as it occurs many times in the quartet. It’s unmistakable. Evidently Shostakovich composed Quartet No. 8 in a very short period of time and wept as he was writing it.

The Black Monk

Shostakovich plays a major role in the Emerson Quartet‘s recent activities in theatrical music. Premiered at Lincoln Center to rave reviews in the The New York Times and The Guardian, The Noise of Time was a multi-media performance about the life of Shostakovich directed by Simon McBurney. In it the Emerson performed Quartet No. 15 while the story was played out by actors and dancers of Theatre Complicité. They have given about 60 performances throughout the world.

Now Setzer has dreamed up another tour de force, a complex theater production called Shostakovich and the Black Monk: A Russian Fantasy. Its world premiere took place in Detroit last month, with the Emerson String Quartet playing Shostakovich‘s Quartet No. 14. It will be performed again this summer at Tanglewood and Princeton University, and possibly several venues on the West Coast in the future.

Simon McBurney’s brother Gerard, a Russian scholar, had planted the seed during their work on The Noise of Time. Shostakovich was a great admirer of Chekhov and particularly obsessed with his story, “The Black Monk.” Shostakovich had wanted to write an opera about it, but after Stalin’s diatribe about the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, the composer literally feared for his life until Stalin’s death, and he never had the courage or the strength to compose another opera. So Setzer and his friend, the writer and director James Glossman, have developed a theater production interweaving the Chekhov story with Shostakovich’s own story.

Setzer pointed out similarities between Quartet No. 14 and aspects of Chekhov’s story. “It sounds very Shostakovian,” I remarked after he gave me the synopsis, “Death and the genius, continual frustration, and the bizarreness of it all.” He agreed. “Yes, and the whole aspect of making a pact with the devil. The monk is the figure of death, but he’s more than that.” Little wonder that Stalin is a major character in the production. Although most of the score is Quartet No. 14, Setzer has used a little of the music from No. 15 as well, which he calls, “this great swirling passage. I think it is Black Monk music. So we use it that way. Who knows? I’d love to ask him.”

Portland would do well to reserve a place on any West Coast tour by the Emerson and their actors for a performance of Shostakovich and the Black Monk. Either Portland Center Stage or Actors Repertory Theater could be possible venues. There are lots of Shostakovich lovers in this city, so you know it would be a sell-out. After 40 years, the Emerson Quartet is still finding new ways to bring chamber music to life.

Alice Hardesty is a Portland writer and chamber music enthusiast. Her book, An Uncommon Cancer Journey: The Cosmic Kick That Healed Our Lives is published by Bacho Press. Read Alice’s ArtsWatch interviews with the other members of the Emerson Quartet, Paul Watkins, Eugene Drucker, and Lawrence Dutton.

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