Emerson String Quartet’s Larry Dutton’s words of wisdom, as featured in Gramophone Magazine in September, 2012Posted by Emerson String Quartet in Contemporary Classical
My advice to any aspiring string quartet player, or chamber musician is to strive to be the strongest instrumentalist you can be. You should be able to play concerti, sonatas, solo Bach….you name it. If you have those skills at your fingertips, as it were, you can offer that back to your ensemble, which only strengthens the whole. An ensemble is only as strong as its weakest link.
After 34 years with the same group, I do believe that I have a pretty good insight into what it takes to make a marriage, friendship, business or partnership work. In a certain way there is a bit of luck which comes into play as to whether or not the relationship will work out in the early days and continue to work over the long haul. It is very much like a marriage in a sense that you have to build a mutual respect for each other, be able to give criticism, accept criticism and do so in a way which is helpful and not destructive. I have heard that one quartet makes their musical decisions by holding a vote. In my opinion, that’s a recipe for disaster. You cannot make decisions in a string quartet as though it is a democracy, you must come to a mutual agreement together, realizing there is no end to interpretive understanding. With reference to the Emerson, there are other things too – we all share a common goal – we have the same musical heroes, with Oscar Shumsky being at the top of our list. We all have common great instrumentalists and vocalists whom we admire. Finally, we share a sense of humor. Everybody (even during stressful times) is never overly serious and we all realize that life is full of crazy twists and turns. I believe that all four of us excel at rolling with the punches. We are incredibly lucky that we have the right chemistry of mutual respect, similar artistic goals and a common sense of humor.
Speaking of musical heroes, I would also have to point out that in addition to Oscar Shumsky, David Oistrakh, William Primrose, Mstislav Rostropovich and Dietrich Fisher-Dieskau are other heroes of mine. Menahem Pressler was a great mentor. After 35 years, I still consider him my mentor.
My first performance as a member of the Emerson Quartet was in May of 1977. I remember that entire summer as though it was yesterday – it was a summer of sheer terror. I was still a student at Juilliard and just turned 23. We were invited to perform at the Vermont Mozart Festival in Burlington, VT. Mozart’s G minor Piano Quartet was a revelation to me. We played with Menahem Pressler. To experience this piece for the first time through his eyes instilled within me a lifetime goal to aspire to in terms of what it takes to be a great musician. I still remember how hard I practiced because I was trying to play catch-up. I was a student and the other three guys were much more experienced. I was learning to become a better performing artist by the minute – in great gulps and gasps!
I have no rituals before I perform, but I do expect to be in a very definite frame of mind before I walk out on stage. Breathing and warming up are important. If I’m not breathing correctly and I haven’t had some sort of time to warm up, it is more difficult. Likewise, mental conditioning is important. I can never feel as though it is about me – I must always feel it is about the music. At Carnegie Hall, Wigmore Hall or the Musikverein – I can’t think about those halls and the history within the hallowed walls before I step out on stage, or it could be unnerving. It is a delicate balance of nerves – a heightened sense of awareness is a positive thing – but too much is destructive. So much of what we do is a mental game. I read about athletes and what it is they do to prepare themselves mentally. After more than 30 years, I do know what it takes to find that right “edge” for me – whether it be breathing exercises or slamming down a cup of coffee. It’simperative I am clear and energized for a performance.
In much the same way athletes respond to the roar of the crowd, the electricity of the audience is so incredibly meaningful to me. When I walk out on stage and the audience somehow seems to be energized and excited to hear us – when I feel that electricity – it pumps me up. In South America, Korea, China and New York – it’s as though the audience is cheering for us on before we’ve even played one note. I am automatically inspired to do my best. The welcome of applause definitely improves my performance level.
I never travel without my eye mask. I have a difficult time sleeping on airplanes, and cool air and darkness is key. We are so lucky to live in an age where we can travel with our own entertainment – our books on a kindle, our computers, a great pair of headphones to hear music with high quality sound – these tools help me enormously. A gym in the hotel is imperative. Keeping strong and healthy is always important, especially when you have a travel schedule like mine.
I believe the viola commands and demands respect! We have an extraordinary number of violists who have proven that the instrument is important and has a very unique voice. Some of the great composers played and appreciated the viola – Mozart for one! In the chamber music of Mozart – he went to the trouble of writing six viola quintets which are probably some of his most personal statements within all of the chamber music that he wrote. By adding a second violist to a string quartet, he creates an incredible warmth and richness. I also believe that the sound of the viola is closest to the sound of the human voice – listen to the Primose/Marian Anderson recordings – and you’ll know what I’m talking about!
People may not know that one of my greatest passions is hiking and climbing and I have climbed seven of the 14,000 foot mountains in Colorado – known as “the fourteeners”. And, even though I use my fingers to make a living, I am passionate about skiing – and I’ve skiied and will continue to ski all over the world.
In many ways, performing as a soloist is easier than performing chamber music. Chamber music is complex. There are so many possibilities in terms of ensemble and balance. Musicial choices and interpretations can change how you approach something in any given moment. Playing secondary and then all of a sudden shifting to playing a solo can be nervewraking – coming to the forefront and then sinking back into the texture of the piece is not easy. You are always adjusting sound, vibrato. Playing solo offers possibly more technical demands, but, it is your sound, your voice, your personal interpretation, your projection – it’s very self-involved. You always have to maximize bow, vibrato, sound projections, etc. This is, of course, not the case in a string quartet because you have to be thinking of three other people and what they are doing. For sure, the viola parts in the Bartok Quartets are as demanding as the concerto he wrote for the viola.