THE BLOG
03/28/2013 04:24 pm ET Updated May 28, 2013

Making Music in the Emerson String Quartet

I can't talk meaningfully about my upcoming departure from the Emerson without describing the sensation of playing in a string quartet. It is undeniably a peak teamwork experience that requires perfect timing, hair-trigger reactions, spontaneity governed by discipline and consistent proactive participation. In the great quartet literature - and most of it is truly great - every one of the four voices is equally important, and in the best performances there are neither leaders or followers.

I don't doubt that when my successor, cellist Paul Watkins, sat down with my colleagues last year to try out for my job, he had something of the same experience I had in April of 1979 when I sat with Eugene Drucker, Lawrence Dutton and Philip Setzer to read through the Ravel Quartet, Mozart's K. 575, and Webern's Op. 5. At that point, the Emerson Quartet had already been in existence for several years, and their original cellist had decided to leave. Having performed only a single quartet up until that point in my life, I knew very little of what to expect. But the impact was overwhelming: not only the sensual joy of fitting the bass into the most perfectly-voiced chamber configuration, but blending with three guys who had already spent years learning how to play together, in tune, with uniform sound color, vibrato and articulation. It was like putting on bespoke shoes or a custom suit. In a couple of days, they called to invite me to join, and I said yes without a second thought. Little did I know where I was going; I was twenty-eight. But my experience playing with my colleagues-to-be was magical, and a whole new, tantalizing world had opened in front of me.

One of the best things I have taken away from my time with the Emerson Quartet is the sheer amount of music I learned. From the beginning, the quartet decided not to specialize in any particular repertoire (as some groups do) and to attempt at playing everything equally well, to the absolute best of our ability. Our first manager thought we should learn the major quartet literature to get our feet wet, as it were, and offered us the chance to perform all sixteen Beethoven quartets at a summer festival he directed. We said yes without really knowing how difficult a task it would be, and our performances that summer were far from perfect, yet, surviving this trial-by-Beethoven gave us the courage to look at the repertoire as large chunks. The next major undertaking took us somewhere no one else had ventured: the complete Bartok Quartets in a single concert, at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall. With that concert, the Emerson set a new bar at a high level and the world took notice.

The effect that all this string quartet music has had on me is incalculable. Prior to my joining the Emerson, I concentrated on solo repertoire and played in freelance orchestras. Of Beethoven, I knew his five cello sonatas and a couple of piano trios. From Shostakovich I had learned his sonata and two concertos. I knew Schumann's cello concerto, Brahms's two sonatas and Double Concerto, and Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations and a few other solo pieces by Haydn, Schubert, Dvorak, Grieg, Debussy, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, and Britten. That's the good news. The bad news was that I had never played any Mozart (he didn't write for solo cello!), Smetana, Ravel, Schoenberg, Berg, Bartok, and others, and would have only encountered them had I joined a full time orchestra. In addition to encountering the great composers I didn't yet know, I profited enormously from learning more of the music by composers whom I thought I already knew well. For example, my absorption of all of Beethoven's quartets, especially those from his "late" period (there are no late cello sonatas), provided me with a much deeper perspective on the five cello sonatas I had performed since my youth.

Playing in a string quartet has also been quite a lesson in technique. Putting together a Bartok quartet for the first time is not only physically, but also mentally challenging, to say nothing of learning a work like Berg's Lyric Suite or even Ravel's quartet. I learned to hear intonation - the tuning of the ensemble - as never before, as it is the cello that is responsible for setting the exact pitch of every chord. It became imperative that I play in tune, all the time. I also learned that the role of the cello in a quartet is also closely related to tempo: often the cello part acts like a kind of drum, contributing rhythmic elements that hold the group together. I became conscious of the effect the cello has on the general volume, finding out quickly that if I played louder so did everyone else, and if I dropped the bottom away, they would play softer. I learned the incomparable value of articulation, of being able to make the instrument speak clearly, like a singer with fine diction. And last, but by no means least, I learned to keep track in my ear on four distinct lines, each equally important and contributing something essential to the music.

I have told people often, in all seriousness, that I became a cellist in my teens through learning the solo literature, but that I became a musician in my twenties from playing in the Emerson String Quartet. And that is directly attributable to the range, quality, and quantity of the music I learned and the high level at which I was expected to play it. And it is precisely that knowledge and experience which will allow me, after my coming "graduation", to venture on to new projects outside the quartet universe.

Subscribe to the Culture Shift email.
Get your weekly dose of books, film and culture.