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Emerson String Quartet: Tiny Desk Concert

The cameras were rolling long before the Emerson String Quartet played a note behind the Tiny Desk. A documentary film crew followed the band into our lobby and kept rolling tape as the players unpacked their instruments, sat down to warm up and joked ceaselessly among themselves.

The reason for all the fuss was to mark the final days of the nearly 50-year career of one of modern history's most durable, beloved and prolific chamber ensembles. Just two days after we captured this performance, the band played its final concert together in New York, where it all began in 1976 when a couple Juilliard students thought putting together a string quartet might be a fun idea. Forty-some albums, nine Grammys and countless concerts later, we were honored to document one of the band's last performances.

Typical for the Emersons, the music they chose was wide-ranging. A dash of Haydn served as a witty amuse-bouche, then on to a mini-movement from late in Beethoven's career, when the composer could swing his moods with shockingly modern abandon. At the heart of this bittersweet concert is the Emersons' achingly beautiful performance of George Walker's Lyric for Strings. The Washington, D.C. native, in 1996, became the first Black composer to win a Pulitzer. The elegiac music poured out of the players in rich, intermingling layers.

But the band couldn't leave on a somber note, so it closed with a rambunctious interpretation of the finale to Ravel's string quartet — an appropriately effervescent way to say goodbye.

SET LIST

  • Haydn: String Quartet, Op 33, No. 5: Scherzo
  • Beethoven: String Quartet, Op. 130: Presto
  • Walker: Lyric for Strings
  • Ravel: String Quartet in F: Finale


MUSICIANS

  • Eugene Drucker: violin
  • Philip Setzer: violin
  • Lawrence Dutton: viola
  • Paul Watkins: cello


TINY DESK TEAM

  • Producer: Tom Huizenga 
  • Director/Editor: Kara Frame
  • Audio Engineer: Josh Rogosin
  • Videographers: Kara Frame, Michael Zamora
  • Series Producer: Bobby Carter 
  • Audio Assistant: Hannah Gluvna
  • Production Assistant: Ashley Pointer
  • Photographer: Catie Dull
  • Tiny Desk Team: Suraya Mohamed, Maia Stern, Joshua Bryant, Hazel Cills
  • Series Creators: Bob Boilen, Stephen Thompson
  • VP, Visuals and Music: Keith Jenkins
  • Senior VP, Programming: Anya Grundmann

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Huizenga
Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.