Phil Setzer often combines his first love — music — with his second — teaching — in programming concerts for the world-renowned Emerson String Quartet, which makes its academic home at Stony Brook University.
That will be the case Dec. 4 when the foursome presents the second in its three-concert series “Passing the Torch” at Staller Center. The title refers to Haydn, regarded as “the father of the string quartet,” and Beethoven, 38 years his junior, who was Haydn’s student, briefly, in Vienna. Haydn wrote to a friend, half-joking, that if young Ludwig van continued to develop, the master “would soon be obliged to quit composing.”
Franz Joseph Haydn did not quit altogether. But in 1799, he wrote the first two of what were to be six Opus 77 quartets. A year later, Beethoven, who to this point had avoided writing quartets — two violins, viola and cello — published his six-quartet Opus 18.
Haydn never completed Opus 77 and quietly withdrew from the chamber configuration he practically invented.
On tour with his fellow Emersons, Setzer, interviewed by phone from London’s Gatwick Airport, where security delays followed the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, says he “likes to look for connections” when putting together programs for the quartet he co-founded in 1976. “We’d never heard Haydn’s Opus 76,” considered the pinnacle of his career as quartet composer, “coupled with Beethoven’s Opus 18 — the last complete set of quartets by Haydn and the first by Beethoven.”
What surprised Setzer, he says, “is Beethoven’s influence on Haydn. He was very familiar with the new kid on the block. In the last decade of the 18th century, a lot of people were talking about Mozart and then Beethoven. The late Haydn quartets were his way of showing he could still do it.”
The Dec. 4 Staller program features, like the first one this fall, two quartets each from Haydn’s Opus 76 and Beethoven’s Opus 18. The April 5 series finale completes the set of six quartets each by master and student.
LATEST EMERSON CD
The concerts will be performed again as part of Lincoln Center’s “Great Performers” series next spring. When asked if there are plans for a “Passing the Torch” album, Setzer said, “We’re thinking of it as a recording — perhaps a DVD.”
Meanwhile, the quartet just released a CD with opera soprano Renee Fleming. Featuring Viennese music of the 1920s and ’30s, it’s the nine-time Grammy-winning Emerson’s first disc with cellist Paul Watkins, who joined the ensemble in 2013. Teaming with Setzer is Eugene Drucker, alternating as first and second violin — a distinguishing performance tactic of the Emersons, named for Ralph Waldo. Together with violist Laurence Dutton, the three perform standing up.
The Emersons will remain artists-in-residence at Stony Brook, where Setzer and Dutton are tenured music faculty members. “Each year, the level of student performance improves over the last,” says Setzer, adding, “I love teaching here.”