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The Emerson String Quartet sparks a family reunion in Charlotte

    Lisa-Marie Mazzucco -
    Philip Setzer of the Emerson String Quartet.
    Marc Setzer
    - Courtesy of Emerson String Quartet
    The Emerson String Quartet, now in its 37th season, consists of violinists Eugene Drucker (left) and Philip Setzer, violist Lawrence Dutton (center) and its newest member, cellist Paul Watkins.

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  • Emerson String Quartet

    The Grammy-winners play Felix Mendelssohn’s Quartet in F Minor, Op. 80; Benjamin Britten’s Quartet No. 3, Op. 94; and Ludwig Van Beethoven’s Quartet in C Major Op. 59, No. 3 (“Razumovsky”).

    WHEN: 8 p.m. Sept. 20.

    WHERE: Halton Theater, Elizabeth Avenue and Kings Drive.

    TICKETS: $25-45.


Like a fairy tale, our story begins more than half a century ago:

Once there were two gifted boys who dwelt in a household filled with melody. When they came of age, the elder seized his violin and set off around the globe in an internationally famous quartet. The younger left home with just his voice and hands (a piano was too big to tote) and ended up teaching thousands of children to fall in love with music. And after more than 35 years at their crafts, their paths crossed again.

Not that Philip and Marc Setzer don’t keep up with each other. The 62-year-old violinist in the Emerson String Quartet and the 58-year-old performing arts chair at South Mecklenburg High School remain uncles to each other’s kids and respect each other’s unique accomplishments.

But the Emerson, which will open the Charlotte Concerts season Friday at Halton Theater, has never played in Charlotte since forming in 1976. Now Marc’s students have a chance to hear the Grammy-winning quartet in person – three chances, actually, as members will play that day at South Meck and open an afternoon rehearsal to invited kids.

At first glance, the Setzers’ lives seem to have diverged from early childhood, when parents Elmer and Marie played violin under taskmaster genius George Szell in the Cleveland Orchestra.

Philip started playing violin at 5, studied with Oscar Shumsky at Juilliard School of Music, received a Bronze Medal at the Queen Elisabeth International Competition in Brussels and has performed as a soloist. (He opened the Utah Symphony’s season this weekend, as the violinist in Beethoven’s Triple Concerto with pianist Wu Han and former Emerson cellist David Finckel.)

Marc didn’t take music seriously as a career until his second year at the University of Michigan. He landed in Charlotte at 24 and since been South Meck’s choral director, varying his routine by conducting the Singing Christmas Tree and founding the Charlotte Philharmonic Orchestra’s chorus.

Yet they mirror each other, too. Philip teaches at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where the quartet is in residence. Marc is acclaimed in his field: He won Choral Director of the Year from the N.C. Music Educators Association in 2013.

Both originally thought about other careers, Philip as a physician and Marc as an engineer. And you might not want to take them on at ping-pong: Young Marc shifted from left-handed play to right-handed, so he and Phil could play doubles.

Two men, two winding roads. Here’s how they remember it, looking back.

Philip Setzer: The wanderer

“The career epiphany for me came when we decided to form the quartet as students,” says Philip Setzer. “Even though we didn’t make any money at first – whatever we earned went into buying music – the encouragement we got led me to think this was going to work.

“I didn’t want the kind of pressure that comes from being out front by myself, as a soloist. As a kid, I thought I wanted to be concertmaster of an orchestra, because I studied with Josef Gingold and Rafael Druion (concertmasters in Cleveland). But the repertoire in chamber music is unbelievably great, and there’s no better chamber music than string quartets. As a soloist, I wouldn’t have the same (breadth of repertoire) or input in a performance.”

The addition of cellist Finckel in 1979 to violinists Setzer and Eugene Drucker and violist Lawrence Dutton made the Emersons a unit. A recording of all six of Bela Bartok’s quartets made them famous: It won 1989 Grammys for chamber music performance and classical album of the year. (They had a similar double Grammy in 2000, with Shostakovich’s quartets.) Finckel stayed until six months ago, when British cellist Paul Watkins became the first change in 34 years to this string family.

“We were ready to stop if we didn’t find the right person. You always take a risk when you make a change like this, and we had only one person we knew would work. Luckily, he decided to give up what he was doing in England and move to New York. It was a big decision for Paul, because he put himself in the position of being compared with how we used to be. Would he get along with us? We tease each other mercilessly; would he get our sense of humor? Did he really want this kind of life?

“It’s so much fun, if you’re with the right group; most people wouldn't imagine how much fun we have at rehearsals and when we're working. On the other hand, it’s exhausting. People don’t understand the amount of practicing and rehearsing and business meetings and travel decisions and managerial decisions. We just came off a European tour, and there were three days where we got up well before dawn to get to the airport to be somewhere for a concert that night. We went seven hours by train from Ausgburg, Germany, to Ascona, Switzerland, and played three long quartets that evening.”

Setzer does the quartet’s programming, so he’s currently listening to Saint-Saens and Korngold pieces that might be added. (The Emerson also commissions a work every year or so.) He’d like to do another project such as “The Noise of Time,” a theatrical collaboration with actor Simon McBurney about the life of Shostakovich. But no string player lasts forever.

“Paul is 19 years younger than I. One reason he was the perfect choice, besides musicianship and sense of humor and intelligence, was his relative youth. If I’m the next guy who decides to hang it up, the others can bring in someone Paul's age, to give it a chance to continue. This quartet has a sound that can outlast all of us.”

Marc Setzer: The fixed point

The worn but dignified grand piano in Marc Setzer’s choir room appeared one night during a concert; as he conducted onstage, students sneaked in with disassembled sections and put them together as a surprise. “I never saw it coming,” he says, grinning about it three months later. He might have said that about many happy surprises in his life.

When his parents asked if Marc would like to play something as a boy, “I probably said, ‘Baseball,’” he recalls. “They didn’t force instruments on us, but they did encourage us.” Elmer and Marie didn’t want sibling competition, so they steered their younger boy toward piano and choir.

He knew what it meant to have parents on the road; the Cleveland Orchestra once took them away for a 10-week tour, five behind the Soviet Union’s Iron Curtain. He also knew what it meant to be around a budding classical star. “I was pretty much in awe of them and Phil,” he says. “By the time I got to the University of Michigan, I’d had so much music that I pulled away from it. I dreamed of being a pilot and started as an engineering major.”

But music pulled back. Marc sang with the UM Festival SIngers and choir. He went back to Brush High School, where his old choral director let him sit in on rehearsals. (“So many people become choral teachers because they had one great choir or band director in high school.”) By 1978, he had a master’s in music; for his final conducting recital, he pulled together a performance of Haydn’s “Lord Nelson” Mass with Phil as a last-minute substitute among the violins. (That was their last collaboration.)

After a year subbing at a Virginia college, he settled in at South Meck and married Terri Setzer, now choir director at Providence High. He, too, has been part of “the bigger world of music:” His choir has performed in Toronto, Washington, D.C., and the American West. Yet his windowless office with the stopped clock remains home base.

“It’s a little Shangri-La,” he says, half-jokingly. “Working here keeps me younger, I think. It’s exciting to get kids ready for performances; if I’m less challenged as a conductor – we do mostly short pieces – I’m more challenged as a music educator. I do have this in common with Phil: We both have crazy schedules.” (Marc, who lives in Waxhaw, drives twice a week to Wingate University to sub for choral director Kenney Potter, who’s on sabbatical.)

Does the younger brother miss the glamor of the older brother’s life?

“I’ve found the place I’m supposed to be,” he says. “This class can be the thing that gets kids motivated to become performers or teachers or just consumers of the arts. We have these amazing moments when kids learn something about themselves, and we all stop and take that in. I’m constantly trying for those moments.

“Phil came here for a concert many years ago, and I was moved by his appreciation of my job. He said, ‘What you’re doing here is where music begins.’ And that’s true.”

Toppman: 704-358-5232
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