In the realm of classical music, these four men need no introduction. These are four men who have been setting the standard in quartets for years and who have been performing together, for 30. They’ve played in every major concert hall in the country and in dozens throughout Europe – the only concert halls that have not hosted this distinguished group are the ones that wish they could. Time magazine called them “America’s greatest quartet” and that is just one of many accolades they’ve earned recently. Oh, and they’ve won eight Grammys.

Brian Merlos
Classic. (Courtesy of Emerson String Quartet)

The Emerson String Quartet visits Ann Arbor every year, and every year they play a concert with a vastly different program. The Quartet is famous for its incredible versatility, for its ability to play both classical and modern pieces with equal grace and fervor. Last year was Dvorák, this year will be Janácek, Saariaho, Bartók and the University’s own Bright Sheng. If you haven’t heard of these composers, don’t feel too bad. Neither had I.

“Oh, but you must know Janácek? He’s a Czech composer,” said Phillip Setzer, one of the Quartet’s two violinists, in a phone interview. He was quick to assure me that my ignorance wasn’t important, that the concert would still engaging because it wasn’t about knowing all the composers or how many fugues they’d written.

“The [University Musical Society] has chosen a really interesting program this year, one I think will be very rewarding,” Setzer said. “It’s not a concert with a bunch of Mozart and then one modern piece, where the modern one sticks out like a sore thumb and just doesn’t fit in. It’s going to be all modern, and they are some wonderful selections.”

Setzer’s enthusiasm was palpable. I’d reached him in a cab as he rushed from rehearsal to another engagement downtown, but he spoke as if he’d been planning the speech for years.

“All the pieces are very powerful. The first one is the Janácek, and it’s a sort of love letter he wrote to a younger woman – a love he never realized,” he said. The Saariaho piece has it’s own story of a slightly different kind of love.

“She wrote it for my mother, who had just passed away. It’s full of so many strange, wonderful sounds. It’s a beautiful, haunting work,” Setzer said. The third selection is a composition by University prof. Bright Sheng, entitled “The Miraculous,” and it will be the work’s U.S. premier.

“The program is quite challenging, but in a good way, like a really good novel,” Setzer said. “I won’t be able to stop concentrating for a second. I think the audience will have quite a treat hearing this.”

The relative obscurity of the composers in tonight’s program highlights one of the rising concerns in classical music: relevance. Why is this music – not just classical in general, but modern classical – important to a young audience? Why should it be important? Why should you go?

“Classical music is art,” Setzer said. “In fact, it’s some of the greatest art ever produced. Saying you don’t need classical music is like saying you don’t need the great authors, or the great painters, and you do, you need all of them.”

And classical music is even more, he claims: “It’s not about being snobby. Classical music is a very powerful way of communicating – it’s communicating without words, and I think that’s very profound.”

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