What Setzer wants to get past, though, is not a tough travel schedule. It’s the quartet’s last concert with the cellist David Finckel, who, after 34 years, has decided to move on to other things. This final performance will take place at the Smithsonian’s Baird Auditorium, where the group has had a regular series since it spun off from the 20th Century Consort and applied for a National Endowment for the Arts grant more than three decades ago. The last piece on the program, the Schubert quintet, will unite Finckel and his successor, the 43-year-old Welsh cellist Paul Watkins, in a public passing of the torch.
“They’re going to be filming, recording; it’s going to be broadcast,” Setzer says. “It’s going to be like being on reality TV. I’m not looking forward to that, but to getting to the point where we’re playing the Schubert quintet, my favorite piece of music in the world. The thing about playing Schubert is that it’s so difficult it doesn’t allow you to think.”
String quartets have a pervasive mystique. They’re the essential ensemble of chamber music, the prototype of the boy (and girl) band — the Emerson’s Web site gallery includes a host of attempts to find new and funky ways to photograph four guys with instruments: backlit in dark alleyways, stalking across a wintry beach. They also offer audiences the elusive juxtaposition of profound art and the mundane forces of human interaction. It’s a spiritual marriage of four people conducted in the public eye.
So the end of the marriage brings a special fascination. There have been quartets whose members don’t speak (the Budapest Quartet); there are quartets that dissolve in a cloud of litigation (the Audubon Quartet); there are quartets that go out with a grand finale, as the Guarneri Quartet did in 2009. Indeed, the drama of replacing a departing quartet member has inspired at least two feature films: “Basileus Quartet” (1983) and last year’s “A Late Quartet,” in which Christopher Walken plays the aging cellist who’s leaving, and Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the ever-frustrated second fiddle.
If you want soap-opera drama, the Emerson is a snooze. Yes, the quartet went through a couple of personnel changes after its 1976 founding — the violist Lawrence Dutton replaced Guillermo Figueroa in 1977, and Finckel replaced Eric Wilson in 1979 — but those departures were perfectly amicable (“I was just at [Figueroa’s] 60th birthday surprise party,” Setzer said last week). And the group has compiled a laundry list of recordings and awards — nine Grammys! — while managing to continue liking one another. The two violinists, Setzer and Eugene Drucker, trade off as first and second violin, so there’s no jockeying for leadership. And the quartet long ago agreed never to vote on big decisions. “If somebody doesn’t want to do something, we’re just not going to do it,” Finckel said last week, adding, “It means you’re never dragging around a grumpy player.”