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Heroes on Speed-Dial

Editor’s note: Emerson String Quartet and Calidore String Quartet perform on October 5, 2017. In this post for UMS, Doyle Armbrusta Chicago-based violist and member of the Spektral Quartet, interviews the Emerson Quartet’s Lawrence Dutton and the Calidore Quartet’s Ryan Meehan on the essential tradition of mentorship.

“Who was your teacher?” It’s one of those inescapable questions every professional musician is asked regularly, in addition to, “How much did your instrument cost?,” “How old were you when you started playing?,” and “Are you sure that’s going to fit in the overhead compartment?”

The more revealing query is, “Who is/was your mentor?”

A mentor is more than a pedagogue who spends an hour a week admonishing you for johnny-come-lately intonation or taser-style vibrato. He/she is that favorited contact you keep on speed dial and don’t think twice before ringing at 11 pm to post-mortem a particularly messy break-up. Figuratively, or maybe-this-actually-happened-in-real-life-to-definitely-positively-not-me.

Mentors are proxy-parents, they are sometimes cautionary tales, they are facilitators that materialize opportunities that a young musician may never have had access to, regardless of talent. This business is not a meritocracy, and while diligence and perseverance are necessities, not all worthy talents make the cut without the shepherding and generosity of a mentor.

During my undergrad years, I was stagnating with a teacher with whom, as a first-generation musician, I didn’t have the knowledge or worldview to know to leave. As luck would have it, another university snatched him up and violist luminary Donald McInnes was flown in every other week from the University of Southern California to cover the transition. There is not a shred of doubt in my mind that without his persistent and sometimes merciless provocations during lessons, the doors he opened, or the empathetic and collegial martinis at his home — just talking about life — I would not be the musician I am today.

Mentorship is essential, and as it turns out, not the easiest concept to define. I made calls to violist Lawrence Dutton of the Emerson Quartet and violinist Ryan Meehan of the Calidore Quartet, to try and tease out what makes this relationship so vital in this crazy show-business of the string quartet.

LAWRENCE DUTTON (Emerson String Quartet)

Emerson String Quartet. Photo by Lisa Mazzucco.

DA: What drew me to your concert was one word from the UMS concert blurb: “mentor.” It’s a word that has always resonated for me. What is the difference between a teacher and a mentor?

LD: I think you have to look at the context of our role in the history of string quartets. Mentoring has been a part of that process for a very long time. You could look at the Guarneri Quartet, and their mentors were, of course, the Budapest Quartet. For us, our mentors were the Juilliard Quartet, mainly. It happens because it needs to happen. It’s like luthiers — they need mentors.

A mentor can be a teacher too. It’s a combination of the two. There’s no question about that.

Probably one of the most important mentors to the Emerson Quartet was Oscar Shumsky, who Gene and Phil studied with. I did everything I could to be in his presence, like playing in a small chamber orchestra that he was conducting, or going to his recitals. This is the early 1970s, so I’m really dating myself. Shumsky was a mentor to all of us. He’s one of the primary reasons the Emerson Quartet exists! We looked up to him. We wanted to play like that.

Teaching is by definition something on a weekly basis. You can be a teacher and not a mentor. I think you can only mentor when you have people that want something very much and have the talent to try and follow in your footsteps.

DA: When I think of my mentor, I think of someone for whom the distance that exists in a teaching relationship narrows — something that becomes personal. Also, someone who created opportunities that I wouldn’t have otherwise had access to because I showed my own motivation.

LD: I would say that’s true. We’ve worked with the Calidore Quartet for several years now and they’ve had unbelievable success. That’s their doing, not ours, but we’ve done our best to help them, for instance by inviting them to play with us, as we’re doing at UMS.

DA: Is it the kind of thing where mentee texts you out of the blue to ask about something other than how to play a high ‘F’ in a Beethoven quartet?

LD: Without question. We’re happy to give our perspective and experience, because that’s what we have.

DA: In terms of taking on that more hands-on approach, is that something you feel internally compelled to do?

LD: It’s the natural order of things. These groups are showing immense promise and desire, and we want to do everything we can to push them and support their career. This is not a large pool we’re talking about — you have to have something special to be out there performing. It’s never been exactly easy (laughs). There have been plenty of people that have tried, and I know we’ve been very fortunate, but nobody really knows how you make it. If it was simple, everyone would be doing it.

DA: These opportunities don’t just materialize. You’ve gotten that person’s attention because you’re doing the work.

LD: Right. Peter Mennin [then President of Juilliard], Alice Tully, Bobby Mann [Juilliard Quartet], David Soyer [Guarneri Quartet], Felix Galimir, Walter Trampler — they were all big friends and fans, and we had that kind of relationship.

DA: When did you realize that Calidore was the kind of group we’re talking about — one you wanted to mentor?

LD: When we first heard them, we were like, “Wow, they have real personality and something to say about the music!” They were already distinguishing themselves.

DA: When it comes down to musical mentorship, how do you make room for your mentee’s own vision for a piece of music?

LD: On the level of Calidore, I find myself thinking, “I wouldn’t do it that way myself, but that is really working.” There’s no end to interpretation, otherwise there would only be one string quartet out there!

DA: Does mentorship need to be nimble, given how different the business is now from when Emerson was coming up?

LD: It’s challenging for us to even comprehend how it’s changed. I think that young quartets today have to reinvent themselves to accommodate the needs of what’s out there. Think about the fact that it wasn’t until the Guarneri Quartet in 1965 that a string quartet could make a living without a residency. Emerson came on the scene at the start of the digital age, and we got on the CD bandwagon. It’s a very short history, and we lose that perspective. There were guys in the Cleveland Orchestra that were driving cabs in the 1950s.

DA: Calidore has really rocketed into a prominent place in the chamber music world. As a mentor, is there any cautionary advice that you find yourself offering them?

LD: Well, yeah. Our career was not a skyrocket — it took a while. We only got to Europe in 1983. It was another four years before we signed with Deutsche Grammophon. It was a process, and there is no way to escape that. You’re in it for the long term.

RYAN MEEHAN (Calidore Quartet)

Calidore String Quartet. Photo by Sophie Zhai.

DA: For you, what is the delineation between a teacher and a mentor?

RM: I guess they can go hand-in-hand, and I think a teacher is almost always a mentor…at least all the music teachers I’ve had. Mentorship is about the bigger picture — goals, advice, and wisdom. They’re someone you can turn to for extra-musical help, whether that be business or personal. Teaching is the exchange of musical ideas. The Emersons have certainly been both to us. They really treat us like they do each other. There’s never the feeling that we’re the students and they’re the teachers, which is really inspiring for us. We’ve had many meals with them on the road, which have been some of my favorite memories of my life, actually. I mean, here are these people that I worshipped on recordings and on stage for so many years…and now I’m riding home with them in the car. That’s mentorship.

DA: Do you ever find yourself sending a late-night text to one of them, like, “Oh crap this thing just happened, what do I do?”

RM: We’re all very comfortable reaching out to any of them. For instance, we know we’ll always get an extremely thoughtful and thorough response from Gene to the most seemingly mundane question we might ask. Larry and Paul — actually all of them — have this insanely humorous side. Phil really considers teaching as important as performing, and he will be the one that will help us focus in on what we need to consider next in a piece.

DA: What’s an example of something non-musical that you’ve asked these guys about?

RM: Everything from the business, like, “Should we have a publicist?” Even these concerts that we’re playing with them — that was their idea and we were like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe you would do that for us!”

DA: So paint the picture for me, how did this all get started?

RM: We were at the Colburn School [in Los Angeles] and we said, we’re leaving here next year and we’re not sure what we’re doing. Five days later we got a call from the head of Stony Brook University, saying [former Emerson cellist] David Finckel had recommended us for a position studying with the Emersons and teaching the undergrads. We were dumbfounded! To be mentored by the Emersons? We had to say yes. We hadn’t met them as a group yet, but I remember that summer I went to Aspen [Music Festival] to visit, and I went backstage after their concert and said, “Hi, I’m Ryan.” They said, “Nice to meet you.” Then I said, “I’m in the Calidore Quartet and we’re looking forward to meeting you in the fall,” and then all of them immediately gave me a big hug, and it felt like we’d known each other a long time.

DA: One of the things that fascinates me about mentorship is that there is, by necessity, a generation gap. The game is different now than it was for the Emerson Quartet. How do you see them navigating those differences when they offer advice?

RM: Some things are the same. Certain etiquette, like that you should be the last people to leave the post-concert reception.

DA: Also, don’t be a jerk.

RM: Yeah. People don’t want to work with jerks. All these insider tips that are relevant to a performing ensemble today are ones they can impart to us, regardless of their generation.

DA: What does that rehearsal process look like, with the octet? There are decisions to be made and you’re rehearsing with people that have been around the block for four decades.

RM: I think what has kept them going for 40 years is that they are always thinking about the repertoire, even if rehearsal time is limited. They will find some small way to reinvent it.

DA: And you feel like you, Ryan, can die on a hill for your preferred tempo in the fourth movement of the Mendelssohn Octet, without bringing the wrath of God down upon yourself?

RM: I’m pretty vocal in our own rehearsals, but with the Emerson — I don’t know — they listen on another level. Their wealth of experience rehearsing with each other and other collaborators allows you to not have to speak too much. You just show your intent and they get it…without words.

DA: Let’s finish with something grand. What is that golden nugget piece of advice you envision handing down to a group you mentor in the future?

RM: Two things. From a musical point of view, I think you need to know how to give quick, efficient criticism and analysis. That goes hand-in-hand with the most important thing, which is that, whatever your opinion, it is secondary to getting along and treating your colleagues with respect — which the Emersons personify.

This post is written by Doyle Armbrusta Chicago-based violist and member of the Spektral Quartet. He is a contributing writer for WQXR’s Q2 MusicCrain’s Chicago BusinessChicago MagazineChicago Tribune, and formerly, Time Out Chicago.

See the Emerson String Quartet and Calidore String Quartet on October 5, 2017.

Backstage with Emerson String Quartet

Emerson String Quartet, Lowell Liebermann, Ilene Forsyth

The Emerson String Quartet performance on September 27, 2014 featured a world premiere of a new work by composer Lowell Liebermann. Here is the composer and the quartet backstage with U-M emerita history of art professor Ilene Forsyth, whose remarkable gift to UMS endows a Chamber Arts Series concert annually.

Did you attend the performance? Don’t forget to tell us what you thought.

Artist Interview: Cellist Paul Watkins, Emerson String Quartet

Photo: Emerson String Quartet. Photo by Lisa Marie Mazzucco.

The Emerson String Quartet returns to Ann Arbor on October 5, 2017 to perform with Calidore String Quartet.

Cellist Paul Watkins joined the quartet in May 2013. UMS Lobby contributor and composer Garrett Schumann chatted with Paul about what it’s like to join the quartet, his British sense of humor, and his role as artistic director at the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival.

Garrett: You joined Emerson Quartet during the 2013-2014 season. We often hear about the demands of precision and cohesion that string quartets require. What has the process of assimilating you, a new voice, into the Emerson Quartet been like?

Paul: Well, you know, it has its challenges because I’m coming into a group of guys that’s worked together for the last 37 years. And in fact, in the case of Phil [Setzer, violin] and Gene [Drucker, violin], they’ve known each other and each other’s playing since they were college students, going back more than forty years. There’s a degree of responsiveness that they have to each other which I have to catch up with. But luckily when we played together for the first time, I think we all felt a very natural and quick connection in our styles of playing. Good basics to work from. But we’ve had to rehearse a lot over the last year, probably more than the quartet was used to.

Garrett: I saw that the press release announcing your joining the group noted your vibrant sense of humor.

Paul: Ah! Did it! Good.

Garrett: I’m wondering what you have to say about that. Do you think that part of your personality had any specific implications in your first season with the group, or is there any particularly funny anecdote from your first season that would match the expectations that were built by that press release?

Paul: [Laughs] That’s very interesting. I think all three of the guys in the quartet apart from myself have got very highly developed senses of humor. So you know, we fool around in rehearsals. Maybe the subject of a lot of our jokes in our first year has been the difference between British English and American English. One thing that comes to mind, too, is just before I gave my first official concert with the quartet, they gave me a little spoof “welcome” pack, which had various characteristics of the individuals in the quartet, slightly exaggerated. It’s been quite funny for me to discover that pretty much all of the things that were there are absolutely true. [Laughs]

Behind the scenes with Emerson String Quartet:

Garrett: [Laughs] So, the program that you’ll be performing at UMS has Beethoven and Shostakovich and also has the new piece by Liebermann that was a UMS co-commission. Could you talk about the process of creating a program with the quartet? What are the things that you discussed and thought about when you designed it?

Paul: I think for a lot of quartets that have been together for a long time, each individual member of the quartet tends to have a different role. And in our quartet, Philip has a lot of responsibility for programming, it’s something that he loves doing. He really relishes the prospect of putting together different pieces and relating composers to each other within a program or within a concert series. While he does the lion’s share of that work, we other three have a lot of input as far as that’s concerned.

Since I joined the quartet, I’ve also shared the repertoire that I’m particularly interested in. For me, Beethoven string quartets are still really the towering achievement in string quartet literature. Nothing’s equaled or surpassed them since he wrote them. My top priority personally was to explore as many Beethoven string quartets as soon as possible with the Emerson.

Garrett: How do you think Ann Arbor audiences will feel about this program with its mixture of very traditional Beethoven and Shostakovich and also this new piece, which none of us will have heard of course?

Paul: Exactly. We haven’t heard it yet! It’s nearly ready. As with a lot of composers, they write very close to deadline, but we’re expecting it to arrive really any day now, so that we could start working on it over the summer. Lowell Liebermann is a very lyrical composer…I’m not sure! I’m nervous to commit to anything in particular about the piece because I’m not sure what kind of piece he is going to write! In a way that’s a kind of surprise.

Garrett: I’m a composer myself so I understand your hesitance to commit anything because who knows! Well, your other big news in addition to the Emerson String Quartet is your new position with the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival.

Paul: Indeed! I’m very excited about that.

Garrett: What attracted you to that position? 

Paul: Actually, in a couple of hours, I’ll go to Detroit because it’ll be the opening of the 2014 festival. The Great Lakes Festival has a very strong personal connection for me because Detroit is the home town of my late mother-in-law Ruth Laredo, who was a very distinguished American pianist and a wonderful lady and a powerful influence on me and many other people.

Her sister still lives there, so they’re a great family connection. She was also a great friend and artistic companion to James Tocco when he founded the festival twenty years ago with his brother.

There’s also a wonderful team of people working for that festival, and it seems that it has a very unique and welcoming atmosphere. This all made me think that working for the festival would be a great challenge but also a great sort of privilege. It’s the first time that I’ve been an artistic director of a major chamber music festival, so I’m very excited to see that work put into practice.

Garrett: What are you thinking about programming, what’s coming up for the festival now that you’re starting your position in August?

As far as programming is concerned, I think what James Tocco has done over the last twenty is very, very good. I want to take that all and develop it. Because I have a British and European background, I want to encourage much more collaboration and cross-pollination between American and European artists. In 2015, we’re going to call it “Coming to America,” which is essentially a kind of short hand for my personal experience of moving to America as a European musician, but also for American composers who have been influenced by Europe, and vice versa.

The opening concerts of the 2015 festival are also going to feature the Emerson String Quartet. That’s an opportunity for me to bring my new friends at the quartet to meet my new friends in Detroit and get things off to a really exciting start.

Garrett: That sounds wonderful. Michigan has a lot of great musicians, composers, and a lot of excited people to hear it. We can’t wait to experience the festival next year.

The Emerson String Quartet performs in Ann Arbor on October 5, 2017.

Updated 7/10/17

Letters from Artists: David Finckel, for the Emerson String Quartet

All one has to do for the Emerson String Quartet is mention “Ann Arbor,” and vivid images arise, as we have been playing regularly for the University Musical Society since our earliest days. To a large extent, the places to which we have returned many times during our career are part of who and what we are.

From the Detroit Airport to the stage of Rackham Auditorium is a route as familiar as from my living to dining room: lunch at my favorite Lebanese restaurant near the airport; I-94 to the Ann Arbor exit; squeezing in the little tunnel under the hall; parking in the restricted space; the long tunnel to the double-sided green room, where tables are laden with photos to sign and the always-mind-blowing UMS season brochures; the little bells that count down to the concert; ascending the slightly-treacherous staircase to the left; squeezing through the small stage entrance while a stage attendant opens and disappears behind the door; and finally, the familiar warm welcome and intense listening of the discriminating and devoted UMS audience, ready to hear even our most challenging programs, and always rewarding us with hearty thanks.

The equally important part of the Ann Arbor experience is, of course, encountering director Ken Fischer, who seems ever more youthful in years and inspired in vision. To be a part of what UMS creates in Ann Arbor is, for us, to be part of something vastly larger than ourselves, which is seen around the country as an incomparable model of presenting and community service.  With its strong and clear mission, UMS should be around for a good long time, here to serve the children and grandchildren of the vibrant Ann Arbor community.  We wish Ken and his always-stellar team as much success as they can imagine, and more.

David Finckel is the cellist for the Emerson String Quartet.

11/12 Chamber Arts Series

The 49th Annual Chamber Arts Series presents seven of today’s leading chamber groups performing both traditional and contemporary repertoire.

All performances take place at Rackham Auditorium.

Subscription packages go on sale to the general public on Monday, May 9, and will be available through Friday, September 17. Current subscribers will receive renewal packets in early May and may renew their series upon receipt of the packet. Tickets to individual events will go on sale to the general public on Monday, August 22 (via and Wednesday, August 24 (in person and by phone). Not sure if you’re on our mailing list? Click here to update your mailing address to be sure you’ll receive a brochure.

Emerson String Quartet
Sunday, September 18, 4pm

Formed in the bicentennial year of the United States, the Emerson String Quartet took its name from the great American poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. This return appearance features the quartet in an all-Mozart program, including his three quartets commissioned by the King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm II.

The Late Quartets:  “King of Prussia”

Mozart | Quartet No. 21 in D Major, K. 575 (1789)
Mozart | Quartet No. 22 in B-flat Major, K. 589 (1790)
Mozart | Adagio and Fugue in c minor, K. 546 (1788)
Mozart | Quartet No. 23 in F Major, K. 590 (1790)

St. Lawrence String Quartet
Saturday, November 12,  8pm

One of the great finds of the 09/10 season was the St. Lawrence String Quartet, which made its UMS debut during its 20th season in a stellar program of Haydn, Ravel, and John Adams. The SLSQ appears twice with UMS in the 11/12 season; they also perform a new work by John Adams with the San Francisco Symphony as part of the Choral Union Series in March.

Haydn | Quartet No. 57 in C Major, Op. 74, No. 1 (1793)
R.M. Schafer | Quartet No. 3 (1981)
Golijov | New Work (composed for SLSQ) (2011)
Haydn | Quartet No. 61 in d minor, Op. 76, No. 2 (“Quinten”) (1796-97)

Les Violons du Roy
Bernard Labadie, conductor
Maurice Steger, recorder

Saturday, January 28,  8pm

The chamber orchestra Les Violons du Roy borrows its name from the renowned string orchestra of the court of the French kings. Based in Québec City, the group has a core membership of 15 players who were brought together in 1984 for music director Bernard Labadie. They specialize in the vast repertoire of music for chamber orchestra, performed in the stylistic manner most appropriate to each era.

W.F. Bach | Overture in g minor (originally attributed to J.S. Bach, BWV 1070)
Telemann | Concerto for Recorder in C Major, TWV 51:C1
Scarlatti | Concerto Grosso in Seven Parts, No. 3 in F Major, No. 3
Vivaldi | Concerto for Recorder in c minor, RV 441
Geminiani | Concerto Grosso No. 12 in d minor, “La Folia” (after Corelli)
Geminiani | Concerto for Recorder in F Major (after Corelli)

Sabine Meyer and the Trio di Clarone
Saturday, February 4,  8pm

In addition to developing a systematic training program for the clarinet and breeding horses, Sabine Meyer is regarded as one of the most outstanding soloists of our time. She was solo clarinetist with the Berlin Philharmonic, a position she left as she became increasingly in demand as a solo artist. Today, in addition to her solo appearances, she performs in two chamber ensembles, including the Trio di Clarone, whose other members are her husband and her brother. Trio di Clarone began in 1983, in part because of their shared interest in the basset horn, a rare instrument in the clarinet family that was used in Mozart’s Requiem and in his five divertimenti written for a trio of basset horns.

Mozart | Three Arias from The Marriage of Figaro
Poulenc | Sonata for Two Clarinets
Stravinsky | Three Pieces for Clarinet Solo
J.S. Bach | French Suite No. 5 for Two Clarinets and Basset horn
Mozart | Divertimento No. 1 for Three Basset horns, K. 439b
C.P.E. Bach | Duo for Two Clarinets in C Major, Wq. 142
Mozart | Four Arias from Cosi fan tutte for Three Basset horns

Chamber Ensemble of the Shanghai Chinese Orchestra
Friday, February 10,  8pm

The 20 members of the Shanghai Traditional Chamber Ensemble are drawn from the first large-scale modern orchestra of traditional instruments in China. While Chinese stars such as Lang Lang have brought new attention to Western classical music in China, this ensemble provides a window into the traditional Chinese classical music that dates back centuries.

Hagen Quartet
Thursday, February 23,  8pm

Regarded internationally as one of the foremost string quartets of the day, the Hagen Quartet consists of the two brothers Lukas (violin) and Clemens (cello) and their sister Veronika Hagen (viola), along with violinist Rainer Schmidt, who has been with the group for more than 20 years. For this return performance, the Hagen Quartet presents a program of Beethoven quartets, as part of UMS’s focus on musical renegades.

Beethoven | String Quartet in F Major, Op. 18, No. 1
Beethoven | String Quartet in f minor, Op. 95
Beethoven | String Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 74

Pavel Haas Quartet
Wednesday, April 18,  8pm

Based in Prague, the Pavel Haas Quartet is named for Czech composer Pavel Haas, who was imprisoned at Theresienstadt and died at Auschwitz in 1944. While the Quartet is passionately committed to the Czech repertoire, and particularly the three wonderful string quartets that Haas composed, all their performances receive extraordinary acclaim.

Tchaikovsky | Quartet No. 1 in D Major, Op. 11
Pavel Haas | Quartet No. 2, Op. 7 “From the Monkey Mountains”
Smetana | Quartet No. 1 in e minor, “From My Life”

Return to the complete chronological list.

UMS and the Grammys

Artists presented by UMS had a great showing at the Grammy Awards last night, with the following winners from the 09/10 and 08/09 seasons:

Béla Fleck / Thrown Down Your Heart (Concert on Wednesday, February 17)
Best Pop Instrumental Performance
Best Contemporary World Music Album

Thrown Down Your Heart

San Francisco Symphony / Mahler Symphony No. 8 (Concerts on Friday-Saturday, March 19-20)
Best Classical Album
Best Choral Performance
Best Engineered Album, Classical

Kurt Elling / Dedicated to You (Performance in April 2009)
Best Jazz Vocal Album

Kurt Elling / Dedicated to You on YouTube

Chick Corea & John McLaughlin / Five Peace Band (Performance in April 2009)
Best Jazz Instrumental Album

Chick Corea and John McLaughlin: Five Peace Band on YouTube

Emerson String Quartet / Intimate Letters (Performance in September 2008)
Best Chamber Music Album