Some of the best advice I ever received was to not to take myself too seriously.
The secret to staying together and happy for 34 years in a quartet is keeping yourself happy first, and then caring a lot about your colleagues.
The way I juggled parenting and travel was giving my all to my family when I was home.
My ritual for good luck on stage consists of coming in with low expectations but high hopes.
To keep sane while I’m traveling, I always bring…my cello!
When I walk on stage to perform, the music in my head is always the first phrase I’m about to play.
My fans know a lot about me, but they probably don’t know that when I joined the Emerson I only knew one string quartet.
When I play solo, it’s very different from playing in an ensemble because I spend much less time following and more time leading.
The musicians I most admire are those who are masters of the widest amount of repertoire.
If I could be anywhere right now, I would be in Venice.
My first performance with the Emerson was on October 6, 1979 in Allentown, Pennsylvania – which happens to be where I was born.
My favorite place in New York City is my own home.
The best piece of advice I ever received was in my autograph book from when I was 10 or 11. George Szell, the great conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra (in which my parents both played) wrote: “Practice! Practice!! Practice!!! And have my very best wishes.” When I went backstage later that same year to meet Oscar Shumsky, who later became my teacher at Juilliard, he saw the Szell autograph and, on the page facing it, wrote: “Don’t practice too much. Have some fun growing up!” I’ve always tried to find a balance between the two.
After 34 years as a member of the Emerson Quartet, we often say that our secret to getting along with each other is to keep a sense of humor. While this is true, if you don’t have a tremendous amount of patience you won’t feel much like laughing in the long run. Also, respecting the fact that we all want the same thing—to do justice to the music we play—is paramount.
Juggling traveling and family life is the most difficult aspect of what we do. I don’t have a good answer for the best way to do this, but I think anyone who is successful and busy, and especially who is away from home as much as we are, faces the same challenges. The hardest thing is to be totally engaged with your family when you are home since you’re also scrambling to catch up or preparing for the next trip.
To keep me sane on the road, I won’t travel without my computer, cell phone, and Kindle.
I don’t have any rituals before concerts to bring me luck. I just try to warm up well and I have a system for that that works well for me, a set of exercises to help tone the muscles in my hands and also some stretching that keeps me relaxed. I do like a bit of coffee before a concert and don’t do well if I haven’t eaten anything for too long—I feel shaky.
Something about me that our fans probably don’t know is that I do a pretty mean Donald Duck imitation. Tim Eddy (cellist of the Orion Quartet) and I are both known for this.
I have had the good fortune to play quite a bit of solo repertoire, including concertos with some very fine orchestras. I have enjoyed this immensely, but, to be honest, I feel much more comfortable playing chamber music and especially string quartets. Maybe if I played as many performances of the Beethoven Violin Concerto as I have his string quartets, I’d feel the other way around.
David Oistrach, Fritz Kreisler and Jascha Heifetz are my violin gods. I learned the most from my main violin teachers, Rafael Druian and Oscar Shumsky, and from listening to and trying to imitate Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s singing and artistry.
If I had a wish, I would be either Jascha Heifetz or Derek Jeter, just for one performance or game.
My first performance with the Emerson Quartet was a long, long, long time ago.
My favorite places in New York City are Carnegie Hall and Yankee Stadium.
After 34 years as a member of the Emerson Quartet, I’d say that the secret to making a marriage, friendship, business or partnership work is a good sense of humor. We always say that a sense of humor is very important, so that each of us can take a step back from intense situations with other people, or with each other, and laugh at the situation or at ourselves. Though after all these years we do find each other predictable, we try not to let that get us down in dealing with each other. We all have different ways of reacting to the stresses of touring and the musical and other demands placed on us. It’s important to maintain mutual respect and acceptance of those differences.
This year my wife and I have had a big transition, to a so-called “empty nest”, now that our son is a freshman at Yale. For the past 18 years, I tried to be home as much as possible between concerts, teaching and recording sessions but I did not always find it easy to forget about the demands of work while at home. In other words, I often felt the need to practice, even though at some of those times I just wanted to be with family. But I did my best to be there for my wife and son, and to convey and share what was important to me apart from quartet life, also trying to participate in activities that were important to them. We talk a lot about films like Hitchcock and other suspense films, film noir, some light comedies like “What About Bob?”, Shakespeare, opera (especially Mozart and Puccini), and various subjects that Julian was studying in school.
I have no rituals before I perform, but like most string players, I have certain warm-up routines before I play so that my fingers feel balanced when I begin playing music. I also try to introduce at least some variety into those routines in order to keep my mind engaged.
To keep me sane on the road, especially on a long tour, I always try to have some (varied) reading material. One thing our fans might not know is that I am a slow reader and wish there were more time for all the subjects in which I’m interested.
When I walk out onto the stage, the only thing I need to hear to psych myself up is the applause and the thought of the music we’re about to play.
In addition to chamber music, playing a solo concerto with orchestra can offer a certain thrill, especially if it’s a huge and long-time favorite piece like the Brahms Violin Concerto or the Bartok Second. If it’s a concerto with which I have an affinity, I regard the process of rehearsing and performing with orchestra as a learning experience, one which at least in theory should strengthen my contribution to the quartet. When I play unaccompanied Bach, I can set the timing (within certain parameters) entirely by myself; I can stretch beats as long as there is some logic to where in the piece, how often and how convincingly I do it. There is a certain satisfaction in that. I don’t have to report to anybody, so to speak, except my audience.
Everyone is always joking about the viola, but I think that violists are at least as responsible as other string players for the spread of viola jokes. It’s a way they can get attention! Seriously, though, the general level of viola playing has risen enormously in the past couple of generations (I’m not speaking of some exceptions like William Primrose, Lionel Tertis, Walter Trampler, etc.), so the tonal resources and the particular timbre of that instrument are now matched by a level of technical proficiency that does command respect.
One of the musicians I most admire is Menahem Pressler. A man approaching the age of 90, he still lives, eats and breathes music. His energy and passionate commitment to music-making set an example for many younger musicians. Growing up, I admired no musician more than my own teacher, Oscar Shumsky, who had an encyclopedic knowledge of the violin repertoire, an idiomatic feel for violin and viola playing, a wonderful sound and astonishing technique. From a somewhat greater distance, I admired Leonard Bernstein’s versatility as conductor, composer, educator and pianist. Music was simply pouring out of him all the time.
If I had one wish, it would be to be more creative.
My very first performance with the Emerson Quartet was Bartok’s Second Quartet at Juilliard in the spring of 1971. We were still an embryonic form of the group we are now and evolved very gradually into a professional group, so I’d say that our first concerts as an entity that resembled what the Emerson Quartet would become took place in the spring of 1977, in New York City and in the Cleveland area.
My favorite place in New York City is the Upper West Side, partly because it’s home, no doubt. It has a wonderful variety of ethnic restaurants, as well as Central Park and Riverside Park within easy walking distance. On a beautiful day, if I have to go to the East Side, I enjoy walking across the Park. When I have occasion to visit Greenwich Village or Soho, I enjoy those, too, as well as Park Slope in Brooklyn.
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 nervewracking - 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.
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’s imperative 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.
Heading to various airports on various days, the Emerson String Quartet met up for their first concert in mainland China, in the city of Shenzen. Accompanying them were family members and Emerson recording producer Da-Hong Seetoo, who helped arrange the trip in collaboration with the Chinese presenting organization, Propel. The quartet’s three appearences were in Shenzen, Tianjin, and Beijing. To continue reading, click here.
Attending my very first Lieder recital, and my first experience of hearing Schubert’s “Winterreise”, at Carnegie Hall in the early 70’s. Sitting up in the last row of the balcony—the cheap seats—listening to that gorgeous voice float up to me and bring me down to the stage, to his world, even his softest whisper, with a technique he used often and so effectively. Immediately going out to buy his historic recording. Literally wearing it out over those next several years. His work introduced me to the world of art song, song cycles, and, most especially, Schubert. After Schubert, there was the great Lieder of Schumann, Brahms, Wolf and Mahler.
I heard almost every concert Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau gave in NYC over that next decade, bought every recording I could find of his, and began a life-long study of his work. I am still trying to replicate or imitate on the violin what he did with his voice and his artistry.
Fast-forward to many years later, when my quartet had a concert at the Schubertiade in Hohenems, Austria. We had a free night and, to our delight, saw on the brochure that Fischer-Dieskau was giving a recital in nearby Feldkirch as part of the same festival. Not only was he singing, but this was to be his very last recital. We were invited to attend by the organizer and presenter of the festival, Gerd Nachbauer, and sat together in about the 10th row, center. He came out on stage, elegant as always, intense and thrilling without doing very much, it seemed. A Presence (with capital P). He greeted the audience with a smile and then stood in the curve of the piano, head bowed. He stayed this way, frozen, for what seemed an interminable amount of time, then, suddenly looked up—right at me!—and the pianist began the first song, which was, if I remember correctly, one of Schubert’s more dramatic songs. The curious thing about it was that when I said this to the others, they each thought he had looked right at them. Probably everyone in the hall that night had the same feeling.
It was an extraordinary concert and very moving, especially because everyone knew it was to be his last. I lost count as to how many encores he sang, but the applause finally stopped. He must have walked at least a mile that night going back and forth onstage and off. When I got back to my hotel room, I decided to write him a letter. I had never written a fan letter to anyone and never have since, but I felt I wanted to tell him what he had meant to me as a musician and to thank him. I used up all the stationery available in my room and then got some more from the front desk. When I finished, I had quite a bundle of paper, which I stuffed into an envelope and gave to Herr Nachbauer who said he would make sure to hand it to Fischer-Dieskau. I didn’t include my address and never expected him to answer my letter, so I wasn’t surprised that he didn’t. Maybe he thought it was silly, all my gushing about how great I thought he was and the impact he had on me. But it was sincere. He was such an important teacher to me even though I never had the opportunity to play for him.
Fast-forward again to two years ago, again at the Schubertiade, now in Schwarzenberg, Austria. Again a free day and this time Fischer-Dieskau was giving a master class. We all went and it was pretty brutal to watch. Not that he was nasty about it, just extremely demanding. He stopped the singers and pianists every few bars, sometimes after only a few notes, usually dealing with musical and/or vocal questions, but also often about the text and working on improving the piano part. He knew these songs inside and out. His discussions about the text were fascinating and I realized that this is such a huge part of what made him so extraordinary. He understood as well as, or better than, anyone what he was singing. What the composer was setting, what the poet was saying.
I got up my courage and went quickly backstage after the class and caught him before the throng of fans engulfed him. I introduced myself and told him in person (briefly) what I had written to him all those years before. He couldn’t have been more gracious and also complimentary about the quartet. He even said he remembered my letter, but I think he was just being polite. Who knows?
I have many recordings of “Winterreise”, but Fischer-Dieskau’s are still my favorite. He recorded it 3 or 4 times, twice with the incomparable Gerald Moore, which are the favorites of my favorites. If you have never heard Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s “Winterreise”, your life is not complete. As the protagonist trudges through the snow, and his heartbreaking tragedy of lost love leads him ever onwards towards madness and eventual death, Fischer-Dieskau’s complete understanding of the music and the text colors his singing in a way that is both exquisite and devastating. If you are not in tears by the end of his “Winterreise” there is something wrong with you.
We are all fortunate that he left so many recordings. He will never be too far away.
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau died at his home in Bavaria on May 18, 2012
—-Philip Setzer, Emerson String Quartet
By Philip Setzer
He looked like a movie star, perfectly handsome and so elegant in every way. As a kid growing up in Cleveland with parents in the orchestra there under the great George Szell, I heard Rudolf Firkušný play almost every season. I remember several Mozart and Beethoven concerti, Dvořák, Janáček and Martinů, always played with great beauty of sound and unimpeachable conviction and style.
Rudolf Firkušný was a remarkable artist. Superb touch and sense of rhythm, and such a beautiful line was always evident in his playing. I remember as a child splashing with him in the pool in Aspen, where he was a colleague of my parents. He was Uncle Rudi to me then. Many years later when my agent suggested that we play duo recitals, I was delighted but was a little apprehensive about if I would be able to have a true grown-up relationship with him. He made it so easy! I was treated with acceptance from him as though I was on his level as an artist. This was remarkable because, in fact, he was light years ahead of me in experience and musical knowledge. Years before, when I was in the Cleveland Orchestra with George Szell, Rudi would come almost every season to play Mozart and early Beethoven concerti as soloist. I remember thinking distinctly then that he was ideal in this repertoire and that he perhaps just wasn’t up to playing the big romantic concertos. Boy, was I surprised to hear him, years after I left the orchestra, play in New York the Brahms D minor concerto! It was huge and powerful beyond measure. I saw a completely new side of this great artist. Touring and playing with this gentle giant was one of the most memorable experiences of my early career. —Lynn Harrell, cellist
Firkušný grew up in the same city as Janáček and studied with him. He was also a close friend of Martinů and a champion of his music, some of which was written for Firkušný. He played Dvořák, Mozart and Beethoven as if he knew them personally, as well.
I met Rudolf Firkušný for the first time at Carnegie Hall in New York when I was travelling as an assistant conductor to Vaclav Neumann on a concert tour with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. I remember vividly how warm and friendly Rudolf ’ s approach was to a young musician! I immediately knew that I have met a wonderful soul and this impression was made even stronger later by our collaboration on stage — I was fortunate to accompany him in Dvořák’s and Martinů’s concertos. When he had learned that I was already an admirer of the work of Martinů, he gave me many precious impulses to a deeper understanding of his music. We met then in Prague also a few times privately and it was always a pure pleasure and delight to be in his company. — Jiri Belohlavek, conductor
One of the great perks of playing in the Emerson String Quartet for 35 years is to have had the great honor and pleasure of making music with some of my childhood heroes. Rudolf Firkušný played with the Cleveland Orchestra under Szell during the years I was growing up, trying to learn how to play the violin and baseball (not necessarily in that order). Later, I was thrilled to have the chance to collaborate with Firkušný, but only twice. We performed a Mozart Piano Quartet and Dvořák’s Piano Quintet at Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival and we also performed together in Montpellier, France.
We did play with Firkušný more than once and I always loved his playing—an aristocratic musician. I attended a wonderful recital of his once in which the piano lid slammed down just as he played the very last chord of the program. That was only one reason the program was unforgettable. He was also a lovely guy and very well read. He turned me on to someone who became one of my favorite authors, Bohumil Hrabal. “Too Loud a Solitude” is about a man who compacts trash for 35 years and hides books in the trash from the government. Lovely idea to honor Firkušný. — Arnold Steinhardt, violinist, Guarneri String Quartet
He was a delight to work with, soft-spoken and very kind, but also very funny. Like every performer I’ve met (or seen on talk shows), he had great stories to tell and he spun them perfectly. This was quite early in our career and we were young and relatively inexperienced, but he treated us as equals and the performances went well. I remember we all went to dinner after the concert in Montpellier and listened to him talk about Szell, Janáček and Martinů. I wish we had had more opportunities to work with him.
I was fortunate to have studied with Mr. Firkušný for four years (1990-94) at the Juilliard School. This was a genuine privilege. Lessons with him were always in a relaxed atmosphere while Mr. Firkušný remained highly concentrated, attentive, and observant, his remarks most valuable and enlightening, his suggestions clear and revealing. His understanding and interpretation of music were a blend of deep knowledge integrated with some enigmatic, inexplicable insight with which only few artists are endowed. The piano repertoire of Mr. Firkušný was wide and varied, but I had the impression that, above all, he loved Czech music, being the country of his origin and early education. He frequently spoke with fervor of its beauty, culture, and peculiarities of its music. Leos Janáček was his teacher and he loved to perform his works. Mr. Firkušný was for me the embodiment of an exceptional personality, and not only in the realm of music. He had a most agreeable mood, elegant demeanor, and great empathy to human needs, always ready to extend help, to meet others’ requests, to understand and to be considerate. His passing away symbolized the way of his life. Quietly and tacitly did he depart with the modesty and reticence that were so typical of his character and nature. — Avner Arad, pianist and student of Firkušný
I vividly remember hearing three great pianists play one after the other at the memorial concert for Isaac Stern in Carnegie Hall. Joseph Kalichstein, Yefim Bronfman and Emmanuel Ax each played a movement of chamber music, all from the classical and romantic periods, on the same instrument. Each of these pianists is known for his tone, his “touch.” Although they all played beautifully, it was striking how different each one sounded from the other.
To know Rudolf Firkušný was a rare privilege, especially for a younger musician: he was a shining proof that a great pianist can be elegant, aristocratic yet humble, kind and generous to his fellow musicians, young and old. He found the right path of speaking with conviction and expression, yet with astounding simplicity and lack of anything extraneous. A prince! —Joseph Kalichstein, pianist, Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio
He was one of the most wonderful representatives of great European tradition, beautiful sound, and clear understanding of different styles. Not only Czech music, for which he was well known, but I also heard him in great performances of others, especially Beethoven! Off stage he was a most generous and humble person.
—Yefim Bronfman, pianist and student of Firkušný
What is it that makes a finger depressing a key which sends a hammer to hit metal strings have a particular sound and color? When I hear recordings of Firkušný and remember how he sounded in concert, or how he sounded next to me in his apartment in New York, what I react to first and foremost is his sound. He clearly had his own voice and it was a gorgeous one.
Although music always came first, he loved having my brother and me around as much as possible. As a Dad he had a wonderful sense of humor and was extremely generous and supportive… and totally indulgent! Our mother always had to be the disciplinarian. He encouraged us in all our musical explorations but never pressured. He left us with a lifelong love of music, an optimistic outlook and magnificent, happy memories.
—Veronique Firkušný, daughter of Rudolf Firkušný
It is both strange and wonderful to see or hear something recorded of loved ones who have left us. My parents live on in the recordings they made. Rudolf Firkušný would have been 100 years old on February 11, 2012. Recordings have preserved the legacy of his refined artistry and that exquisite piano sound, his “touch.” From those recordings and the fond memories of the many people who knew and loved him, he has achieved and deserves immortality.
Philip Setzer is a member of the Emerson String Quartet and Professor at Stony Brook University