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A New Artistic Director Takes the Helm of the Manchester Music Festival

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Published July 10, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.


Philip Setzer - COURTESY OF JÜRGEN FRANK
  • Courtesy Of Jürgen Frank
  • Philip Setzer

The Manchester Music Festival, one of Vermont's many summer festivals showcasing chamber music, was founded in 1974. Two years later, violinist Philip Setzer cofounded the Emerson String Quartet, which became one of the most revered quartets in the chamber music world and lasted 47 years.

The Emerson, based in New York City, had multiple ties to Vermont: Its first gig was with the Vermont Mozart Festival, it played early on with the Craftsbury Chamber Players, and Setzer participated in the Marlboro Music Festival three times. But the quartet didn't perform at the Manchester festival until last year, during its final concert tour.

That performance led to Setzer's new role as the festival's artistic director. His first season — Manchester's 50th — opens on July 11 with the first of its signature Thursday-night concerts in the Arkell Pavilion at Southern Vermont Arts Center.

Setzer and Manchester are a compelling pairing. During the violinist's nearly half century in the Emerson String Quartet, the nine-time Grammy Award-winning ensemble played 100 or more concerts a year and made dozens of recordings that influenced generations of musicians. Sarah Kirkland Snider, who composed the quartet's final commission, "Drink the Wild Ayre," in 2023, called the Emerson's recording legacy "the definitive interpretation of all the great string quartets in history."

Reviewing the quartet's final performance last October, the New York Times wrote that the ensemble was "never just a string quartet. It was an establishment, a touchstone, a catalyst."

Despite that legacy, Setzer was amusingly modest about his new gig when Seven Days reached him by phone. "I'm attempting not to ruin something that's been going for 50 years," he commented wryly.

Far from ruining anything, Setzer, 73, has cooked up five weeks of widely appealing performances on the theme of "The Romantic Journey." Focused on music from the 18th- and 19th-century Romantic era, the season is a roughly chronological exploration of Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Johannes Brahms, Clara and Robert Schumann, and Claude Debussy.

Later concerts include early 20th-century composers Ottorino Respighi and Samuel Barber, as well as Snider and "some piece by an unknown composer named Philip Setzer," as the artistic director joked.

Special events include "Given a Chance," a concert of music by the Romantic era's belatedly acclaimed female and Black composers, on Sunday, July 28; an authors' panel discussion about the music as part of the larger Romantic movement in literature and art, on Saturday, August 3; and three programs for kids.

As to be expected, the guest artists are stellar.

"It's Phil, so you can imagine the artists that he's bringing," executive director Jenny Lin said.

Setzer will perform at every concert; his trio, with cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han, will play the season opener. Finckel and Han are co-artistic directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and Finckel played in the Emerson String Quartet for 34 years until Paul Watkins took over. Watkins, a cellist, is artistic director of the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival in Detroit.

Setzer invited Nancy Allen, principal harpist of the New York Philharmonic and a colleague at Stony Brook University, where they both teach. For her festival appearance, Snider reworked "Drink the Wild Ayre" for harp, bass and quartet. Allen and Setzer will also perform Setzer's own "Elegy for Violin and Piano," which he wrote in Craftsbury in 1976. Allen's arrangement of the piece for violin and harp will receive its world premiere at the festival.

The final concert features Metropolitan Opera star Christine Goerke, a soprano acclaimed for her lead roles in the New York City company's Ring Cycle and Turandot.

Lin, a pianist, will perform in the third concert with the festival's other singer, contralto Sara Couden, a former Metropolitan Opera Lindemann Young Artist who is making her San Francisco Opera debut this season. Lin is a close collaborator of Philip Glass, regularly performing his works and appearing with him in his ongoing tour of his Etudes.

Cellist Edward Arron and pianist Jeewon Park will join Setzer on Felix Mendelssohn's Piano Trio No. 2 in C Minor for the second concert. Arron and Park are co-artistic directors of the Clark Institute's Performing Artists in Residence in Williamstown, Mass., and Vermont habitués. They have performed regularly with Manchester, the Lake Champlain Chamber Music Festival, Capital City Concerts and the Northeast Kingdom Classical Series.

Arron grew up attending Emerson String Quartet concerts every year in New York City, starting at age 10, he said. He now considers Setzer "a hero of mine who is also a friend and a colleague."

Regarding the theme of Romantic music, Arron said, "I think Phil really treasures the golden age of musical composition [that] is the heart of our art form."

Setzer has made a significant change to the festival's young artist program: While Manchester has always hosted 10 young artists, the artistic director is inviting back last year's group instead of auditioning new ones. He is also giving them a larger role. Instead of playing separate concerts, as in the past, they'll perform with their mentors in several of the main programs, as well as in "Given a Chance." Setzer said he took inspiration for the collaborative approach from the nonhierarchical Marlboro festival, where young professionals practice and perform with established musicians.

While it may seem like a leap from performing in a world-renowned quartet to artistic leadership of a festival, Setzer has been honing his artistic directorship skills all along.

According to Watkins, the Emerson String Quartet's cellist from 2013 until the group retired, "Phil had a strong interest in the programs. He liked putting composers and themes together."

Early on, Setzer proposed performing all the Beethoven quartets in chronological order in a series of concerts in New York City — a seemingly obvious idea, but, at the time, "there was some doubt because the first two concerts were the early quartets, which don't sell as well as the middle and late ones," he recalled. "We got a really bad review after the first concert in the New York Times." Audiences, fortunately, stuck with the series.

More immediately successful was Setzer's idea to perform all six Belá Bartók quartets in a row. The performance, at Carnegie Hall in New York City in 1981, lasted three and a half hours.

"He had listened to all six recordings with the score, and by the end he was devastated and in tears," Watkins recalled. "To listen to it intently like that was a very moving experience," Watkins said, and Setzer wanted to share it with an audience.

Arron, then 12, was in that audience, score in hand. "It was jaw-dropping to see a group play with such intensity and such beauty and play such complex music so well together," he recalled. "It had an impact on me."

In 2001 and 2016, Setzer and the Emerson String Quartet collaborated with theater directors on two innovative theatrical creations about composer Dmitri Shostakovich: "The Noise of Time," a biographical piece centered on Shostakovich's final string quartet; and "Shostakovich and the Black Monk: A Russian Fantasy," about his attempt to turn the Anton Chekhov short story into an opera.

"That's the key to why I think Phil will be a wonderful director," Watkins said. "He has his antennae up all the time for interesting projects. He's constantly listening to music, really immersed in the world of music. I've never known him to be short of an idea."

Manchester Music Festival 50th Anniversary Season, July 11 through August 8, at Arkell Pavilion, Southern Vermont Arts Center, in Manchester. $25-75. mmfvt.org

The original print version of this article was headlined "Romantic Appeal | A new artistic director takes the helm of the Manchester Music Festival"

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