Once again, I’ll start with the backstory. In April 2008, we had the Emerson Quartet come to UNCSA for two concerts, including performances of new quartets by Bright Sheng and Kaija Saariaho. I got the assignment of picking up violinist Philip Setzer at the hotel and bringing him to the school for a master class. After an exchange of pleasantries, he told me that he had been following my work for some time and wanted to be proactive about commissioning a quartet from me. I initially thought he was just being polite – I’ve had countless musicians say the same or similar, with no follow-up – but he assured me he was in earnest.
We followed up by phone and email over the next four months before we were able to work out the details, and then I got to work – while simultaneously working on my fourth quartet and the Schumann Trilogy. Truthfully, it was a tad more than I should have taken on at one time, especially with a preschooler and an infant in the house, but I really wanted to do all of these things. Couldn’t say no.
As a side note, this was the biggest commission I had ever accepted without a shred of paperwork involved. We had what used to be called a gentlemen’s agreement, and both sides held up their side of the agreement. I don’t recommend this for young composers, though, unless there is no choice: get the terms down on paper! I’ve had too many promising projects fall through to recommend anything else.
On the other hand, I’ve had promising projects committed to paper and they still fell through, so I guess there is no simple solution.
Work on the fifth quartet ran from January to August 2009. In early February 2010, I showed up at David Finckel and Wu Han’s apartment for a rehearsal. Because of other obligations, I was there about two weeks earlier than they would have preferred. They were apologetic at the outset, telling me that the piece wasn’t quite as ready as they would have liked it to be before playing for me. They needn’t have feared – I’ve heard every possible variant of rehearsal for my music, from pristine excellence to complete disaster. They were well over on the side of the former, just needing some time to work out a few issues. Of course, they had no way of knowing that my rehearsal demeanor is well over on the side of low-key – it takes a lot to get me upset – so I understand where they were coming from.
In fact, having me there for an early rehearsal worked out for the best, as I was able to answer numerous questions that could have caused them to waste valuable time playing things differently from the way I had imagined. And since I had done perhaps the worst job of proofreading on this piece as I’ve done on any piece in the last 30 years, I was happy to be there to answer some very reasonable questions.
Emerson rehearsed a few more times in February, but the next time I met with them was March 9, the day of the premiere, in Cologne. And that’s where the photojournalism begins.
Here is the Kölner Philharmonie from my hotel window.
And here’s a shot that gives a sense of the layout and scope of the interior – truly a beautiful space, both visually and aurally.
Here is Emerson in dress rehearsal, hours before the premiere.
About 10 years ago, they started performing with violinists and violist standing, while the cellist sits on a raised platform. The point of standing is to maximize the expressive potential of their bodies in performance. The point of the raised platform for the cellist is to keep their eye levels on as even a plane as possible, so their interaction on stage can be that of four equals. Interestingly, though, they rarely rehearse this way: in rehearsal, all four players sit.
Dress rehearsal was, appropriately enough, almost entirely spent on my piece. The rest of the program was Ives, Barber and Dvorak, stuff they had performed many times before. A couple things went drastically wrong in rehearsal, but it’s a pretty enormous piece at 33 minutes, so some crazy moments are to be expected. For the most part, I could tell it was going to be a powerfully convincing presentation. And I think I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: these guys are a joy to work with. Gracious, intense, intelligent, no ridiculous ego brandishing.
I’m not the best at gauging numbers, but it appeared that there were about 1000 people in the audience that evening. I found myself sitting next to a young lawyer. We struck up a stilted conversation in my jetlagged German, tried switching to French — a disaster for both of us — then settled on English, which she spoke beautifully, despite her protestations to the contrary. She turned out to be a very astute music lover.
Ives was first, then my piece. The performance was pretty stunning, as one comes to expect from this group. They really are amazing.
And the audience response was a real shocker – I don’t remember a more demonstratively enthusiastic ovation for a piece of mine. Five curtain calls, a solo bow for the composer – it was really an experience I couldn’t have been prepared for.
When the tumult finally died down, we all gathered backstage for an intermission photo. Left to right: Lawrence Dutton, Philip Setzer, Eugene Drucker, cloud-9-guy, David Finckel, Lourens Langevoort (Director of the Kölner Philharmonie).
For the second half of the concert, I returned to my seat, and my neighbor had some very nice observations about my piece, despite the fact that she hadn’t realized she was sitting next to the composer until I got up to bow. What a great crowd.
After the concert, twenty minutes of autograph signing and numerous requests for CDs. Wish I had had my upcoming string quartet disk finished in time – could have sold quite a few. Then we had a fine dinner with Langevoort in a restaurant above the concert hall, before crashing back at the hotel – short night followed by a long odyssey home for me.
The next chapter in this saga came a month later, when the Emerson Quartet came to UNCSA to give the US premiere of my quartet. The school was kind enough to fly Welz Kaufmann in for the occasion to moderate a preconcert talk. Welz had done his homework, carefully studying my first four quartets in preparation for a revealing and insightful conversation.
Then it was time for another delightful dress rehearsal.
Which gives me a good opportunity to report on the tone of the Emerson Quartet’s rehearsals, since I’ve had the privilege of sitting in on three of them. And I speak as a pretty experienced quartet rehearsal auditor, having heard at least seven wonderful quartets play my music.
First of all, I should tell any young composers out there that working with professional string quartets is as good as it gets. It’s a demanding lifestyle, making a quartet work, so the musicians involved are always tremendously dedicated. And the standard of playing is very high; nothing less than the utmost precision and passion for every nuance is acceptable. There’s no holding back allowed.
I’ve had the amazing fortune to work with some of the best, and the differences among them have more to do with character than quality. The Emersons are a wonderful example of this. I tried in vain to get a sense of which player was taking on which role within the rehearsal, but they all do everything – they are really equal partners in crime. There is no leader (to quote Finckel quoting Soyer: if one person leads, then the others will of necessity be behind). In addition to being outstanding musicians, they are four very intelligent men, with far-ranging artistic interests, great senses of humor, intense curiosity and engaging personalities. I’ve loved hearing them hone passages, freely contributing suggestions to me and to one another, sharing insights, knowing just how much comic relief is necessary to keep things moving productively.
If I were to generalize about what distinguishes them from one another, Finckel is the most gregarious, a real connoisseur of people. Setzer has a quick wit and loves a good laugh (best line: when I asked that a tremolo be played more quietly: “oh, like when your cell phone is on silent mode and it goes off in your shirt pocket and you say Why is my nipple vibrating?”). Drucker is the most introspective and creative of the group – he is a composer and published novelist in his spare time (what spare time?). And Dutton is, in some ways, the most pragmatic, down-to-earth, yet deeply soulful player.
What they share is an unsurpassable sense of artistic vision, amazing energy levels and an indefatigable commitment to excellence.
Oh, and there was a concert that evening. The Winston-Salem audience, having experienced a ridiculous number of hours of my music over the years, was a tad less enthusiastic than the crowd in Cologne. Which is not to say that their response was anything less than kind, but people here have a strong motivation to keep me from getting a swollen head.
And – dare I say it? – they have good reason to be a bit sick of me by now.
But of course, the Emersons got a prolonged standing ovation, and justifiably.
Another post-performance pic, this time in the lobby.
Now I’m completing a few revisions. No surgery, just some cosmetic adjustments. The second movement is fine, but the first, third and fourth movements needed a little buffing. I’ll mail the new scores and parts off later this week. Next performances will be in October in New York and Philadelphia – stay tuned.