The Emerson String Quartet has had a phenomenal run. Named for American poet-philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, the New York-based quartet was founded in 1976 as a student group at the Juilliard School and began touring professionally that year. Since then, the group has performed around the world, maintained residencies at the Hartt School and Stony Brook University, produced more than 30 albums, won nine Grammy Awards and the prestigious Avery Fisher Prize. And they’ve never stopped—until now. In 2021, the group’s members—violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violist Lawrence Dutton and cellist Paul Watkins—agreed to disband in October of this year. The quartet comes to San Francisco Performances April 14 at Herbst Theatre to say farewell to its many Bay Area fans, with a program including works by Purcell (Chacony in G Minor, arr. Britten); Haydn (String Quartet in G Major, Op. 33, No. 5 in G Major, Hob. III: 41); Mozart (Quartet in D Minor, K. 421); and Beethoven (Quartet in E Minor, Op. 59, No. 20). 

In a recent phone call, Drucker talked about the decision to stop—and what the group’s members have planned.

Q: This was a big decision. How did you four agree on it?

A: It first came up sometime in late 2017. We were on tour in Europe, and we had a night off. We were eating dinner at a restaurant in Germany and the general subject of retirement age came up. I mentioned it half-humorously, and, to my surprise, the subject sort of took root. No definite decision was made then or for quite some time; it was just an idea floating around in all of our minds.

Q: Did the dates change?

A: Once we arrived at a decision we had two potential stop times, neither of which ended up being the one we eventually chose. One was the end of festival season 2023, the other was the end of summer 2024. As it turned out, our final concerts will be this year, Oct. 21 and 22 at Lincoln Center.

Q: The quartet has been a remarkably stable group in the ever-changing world of chamber music.

A: Yes. Apart from Paul Watkins, who joined us in 2013, replacing original cellist David Finckel, the rest of us had been playing together for more than four decades.

Q: Is this a firm decision?

A: Yes. It feels like, even with a very good thing, something that has been generally very fulfilling for us, and, we hope, for audiences, that even good things have a natural sunset. Like everything else in a career, you think carefully about when that might be and how it might be put into effect.

Q: What does retirement look like for you?

A: It’s not a retirement for any of us. We’re going to continue teaching, mostly as a quartet in residence; we’ll be curating our Emerson Quartet Institute at Stony Brook University, where we’ve been for many years. Our former cellist, David Finckel, is involved in that as well. There’s a concert there that’s been part of our residency, three concerts a year, and as individuals we’ll continue to appear there. We’ll continue to play individually, and in ad hoc chamber formations at festivals. But we want to be true to our word. We don’t want to be like some famous artists who announced a farewell tour only to say there’s another farewell tour a year later. We’re not going to do that.

Q: Throughout the quartet’s history, you’ve covered an astonishing range of repertoire; what were some of the highlights for you?

A: The very first piece that Phil Setzer and I studied together as students at the Juilliard School was the Bartok Second Quartet, which was an unusual choice to start with. After that we started learning Haydn, Mozart, middle Beethoven quartets—his Op. 18, No. 3, Op. 15, No. 3, and Op. 132. We added another Bartok quartet, the Fourth. We didn’t get to Shostakovich until a few years later, and not the complete cycle until the mid-1990s. Early in our career, we played Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” Quartet. The Schubert Quintet we added in 1977; we’ll play it in our final concert. Brahms, we added in a few years; the complete Beethoven quartets we added in 1980. It was a lot of repertoire we got under our collective belts in just a few years.

Q: There were also marathon programs that went beyond the usual chamber format.

A: You can usually do the Beethoven quartets in six concerts, and it’s meaningful to do it in one place, within a concentrated period of time. We’ve done it within eight days, in chronological order. When it’s the same audience with you on that journey, it’s like a musical biography of Beethoven, and the audience has traveled with you on that journey. Similarly, with the six Bartok quartets, we began playing them in one marathon concert in 1981. That was an intense experience, but it’s worthwhile; you can follow Bartok’s stylistic evolution, and it’s somewhat emblematic of what was happening in modern music in the early 20th century. Later on, we came to embrace the Shostakovich quartets —the complete cycle in five concerts, also like a life story of the composer.

Q: How do you see your influence, especially on younger quartets just starting out?

A: I do think we’ve influenced some younger ensembles. I’ve heard from them that they’ve listened to a lot of our recordings. In fact, Paul Watkins, who is 17 or 18 years younger, has told us he grew up listening to our recordings of the Bartok quartets. Music that he heard our recordings of, now he’s playing them with us. One aspect of our work is that Phil Setzer and I switch as first and second violinists; we’ve divided the repertoire pretty evenly. A number of younger groups have been doing that; we were the first professional group to do that consistently.

Q: You’ve worked with many younger quartets, including the Escher, Calidore and St. Lawrence Quartets.

A: Yes. We’ve been gratified to see the niche each of these groups has carved out for itself. They’re all very different personalities, yet they’ve been able to pick up something from our approach. As we go forward into this next phase, teaching will be a major component of activity for each of us. It’s so important for this tradition—not of the Emerson Quartet, but for chamber music—to be carried forward.

Q: What are your lasting impressions of San Francisco?

A: The first time I was ever there was for six weeks, at a seminar given by the Lenox Quartet. I just fell in love with the city. At age 19, I had never been further west than Detroit. For me, it was a great adventure, to get to know a city that was very different from New York, where I grew up. I found the beauty of San Francisco quite seductive, and I heard the San Francisco Symphony a number of times. We liked working with Ruth Felt, who was director of San Francisco Performances for many years. It just felt like a hub of activity: we had frequent appearances at Stanford University, and in Berkeley. Between those three, and then at Music@Menlo with David Finckel and Wu Han, we always had strong ties to the Bay Area.

San Francisco Performances presents the Emerson String Quartet at 7:30 p.m. April 14 at Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Tickets are $50-$75; call (415) 392-2545 or visit sfperformances.org.