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Conversation with Philip Setzer, the new artistic director of the Manchester Music Festival

Philip Setzer is one of the founding members of the Emerson String Quartet, which is embarking on a farewell tour this summer after over 50 years of playing together.
Philip Setzer
used with permission
Philip Setzer is one of the founding members of the Emerson String Quartet, which is embarking on a farewell tour this summer after over 50 years of playing together.

PHILIP SETZER: So many people have come up to us and said, you know, we haven't really felt safe about going to public concerts, but we really wanted to see the Emerson one more time.

JAMES STEWART: That’s the voice of violinist, Philip Setzer one of the founding members of the Emerson String Quartet.

PHILIP: Jean Drucker and I started the quartet when we were students at Juilliard; actually, about 52 years ago.

JAMES: The Emerson String Quartet has an impressive discography of recordings that have been so influential for classical music stations and lovers for decades.

PHILIP: We were so lucky to come along at the right time when the digital recording industry and the CD came into being and we couldn't record quickly enough. It was like, you're only gonna do one CD for us next year? No, you've gotta do a set, you know. We don't want just three Mendelsohn quartets we want the whole set. And so we were recording like crazy and now looking back on it, it was just extremely, extremely fortunate.

JAMES: This Summer the Emerson String Quartet has embarked on a farewell tour after five decades of recordings and performances.

PHILIP: Yeah, we're saying goodbye a lot.

JAMES: And they’re bringing this tour to Vermont.

PHILIP: Our first summer was in Vermont. So, you know, it's great that we're coming back to Middlebury in the Fall, one last time there and we are gonna play in Manchester. The quartet is playing the opening concert there.

JAMES: That’s right, so don’t miss an opportunity to see the Emerson String Quartet perform live, one more time, for the Manchester Music Festival’s season opening concert, Thursday, June 29th, 7:30pm at the Arkell Pavilion in Manchester. In a moment, Philip will tell us what the quartet is planning for that performance. But first, I asked what does the future hold for Philip and the rest of the ensemble.

PHILIP: We will keep teaching together at Stony Brook. We have the Emerson String Quartet Institute there with David Finkel. So the five of us will be continuing that. And in your neck of the woods, I've been appointed the new artistic director at Manchester Music Festival starting in 2024. I'm also involved a little bit this summer with the Young Artist Program. Summer 2024 is their 50th anniversary. So that's like, WOW, you know, like you're gonna be handed something like this. Yeah, sure, make it the 50th anniversary. Let's really do it!

JAMES: Talking to Philip, they seemed up to the challenge and very excited about what they could bring to the festival.

PHILIP: One of the reasons why I was attracted to this particular position in this festival is that they already have in place a young artists program. And if they didn't, that would be something that I'd want to do. So that's already in place. It's a fantastic program. They've got the money to offer 10 young musicians a total totally free ride for the festival. And I think they had something like 147 applicants for these 10 spots.

JAMES: Philip’s directorship begins next year, but this Summer is all about the Emerson String Quartet’s final tour. I asked Philip what we could expect on the program on June 29th.

PHILIP: So we're opening the program with a piece by George Walker. It’s this beautiful piece called is called “Lyric.” It's played quite a bit now in orchestras. It's the slow movement of his first string quartet.

Followed by a Mendelsohn quartet, an early Mendelsohn quartet and just a beautiful piece that isn't played that often. And it's curious, you know, why it isn't because it's just an absolute masterpiece.

And then, on the second half, we're playing a new piece written for us by Sarah Kirkland Snider called “Drink the Wild Ayre”. She spelled it A-Y-R-E but it's actually from a poem of Emerson's, that's why she included it; really beautiful piece that was the last piece that we commissioned for our last year, and we've played it only a couple of times so far, but we're gonna do it a lot over the summer.

And then ending with the Ravel quartet, which is a favorite of everybody's including ours.

JAMES: Don’t miss one of the last opportunities to experience the Emerson String Quartet in person as they perform the season-opening concert of the Manchester Music Festival, Thursday, June 29th, 7:30pm at the Arkell Pavilion in Manchester. For tickets and details go to

Also, be sure to check out a live performance presented by the participants of the Manchester Music Festival Young Artist program.10 young musicians from the world’s finest conservatories will perform works by Beethoven, Haydn and Shostakovich. That’s live on Vermont Public Classical, Tuesday August 1st at 1pm. For more details check out our Summer Concert Series at

James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.