Since its formation in 1976, the Emerson String Quartet has gradually achieved recognition as one of the world's top chamber ensembles. The group's reputation partially rests upon its daring interpretations of core string quartet repertory, which tend toward the personal, the passionate, and even the hell-for-leather. It has performed the complete quartet cycles of Beethoven, Shostakovich, Mendelssohn, and Bartók in major concert halls around the world.
The Emerson (named for Ralph Waldo Emerson) was formed in the early 1970s, when its members were all students at the Juilliard School in New York. They defined themselves as a professional ensemble in 1976. A notable feature of the quartet in its early years was that its two violinists alternated in the first violinist chair. The Emerson has recorded prolifically since signing with the Deutsche Grammophon label in 1987, and the quartet has won nine Grammy awards, including two for Best Classical Album. One of those awards came in 1989, for a recording of the six Bartók string quartets that the Emerson made after presenting all six works in a single concert for its debut at New York's Carnegie Hall. (The Bartók discs also won Gramophone's Record of the Year award in Britain, one of the quartet's three Gramophone awards.) That concert typified the quartet's programming philosophy. The Emerson has attracted both devotees and newcomers with music-making that is ambitious, intellectually challenging, and at the same time a bit extreme in such a way as to attract widespread attention. In 1997, the Emerson presented Beethoven's cycle of 16 quartets in a group of eight concerts at New York's Lincoln Center, each featuring two Beethoven quartets paired with modern works that showed the extent of Beethoven's long shadow in some way. In early 2005, the Emerson presented Mendelssohn's quartets in both New York and England, juxtaposed with works by Mendelssohn's contemporaries. Since its founding, the Emerson has actively commissioned new works from a variety of composers of the 20th and 21st centuries, ranging from the complex modernist Wolfgang Rihm to the accessible Edgar Meyer. They have premiered works by Kaija Saariaho and Bright Sheng in 2007; Lawrence Dillon in 2010; and Thomas Adès and Pierre Jalbert in 2011.
The members of the Emerson String Quartet — violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violist Lawrence Dutton, and cellist David Finckel — have maintained top-flight solo careers of their own. The group is based in New York City, and in 2002 they became quartet-in-residence at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Their long list of awards includes the prestigious Avery Fisher Prize in 2004, and the group members have received honorary doctorates from Middlebury College, Wooster College, and Bard College. The Emerson is committed to collaborative projects with other artists. Their 2000 performance of the Shostakovich quartets culminated in a multimedia work called The Noise of Time, which mixed the quartet's performance of the composer's String Quartet No. 15 with film, dance, and taped readings. The group has performed many benefit concerts to raise funds for causes such as the fight against AIDS, nuclear disarmament, and world hunger. The quartet's first personnel change came in 2013 when cellist Paul Watkins replaced Finckel, to undiminished critical acclaim. The group's association with Deutsche Grammophon has lasted into the 2010s, with a partnership of that duration increasingly unusual in the shifting classical music marketplace. They have also recorded for Decca and Sony Classical, but they returned to DG for the album The New York Concert, recorded with pianist Evgeny Kissin and released in 2019.