As Paul Watkins remembers it, the conversation happened in the fall of 2018, after a concert in the German city of Dortmund. The Emerson String Quartet, of which Watkins has been the cellist since 2013, had just played a concert there and were about to enjoy that rarest of luxuries on the road: a quiet dinner without promoters or donors. Sitting in a restaurant, “the topic arose quite naturally,” he said recently by phone.
The topic was the Emerson’s future — and how and when the quartet would wind down its activity and retire. It’s a natural question in chamber music, a world in which evolution is the norm: Musicians move on, or die, and are replaced, and eventually a collective decision to bow out is reached. Rare, perhaps nonexistent, is the professional group that does so with its original membership intact.
But the Emerson, founded in 1976 at the Juilliard School, is not most groups. The lineup that established its reputation — violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violist Lawrence Dutton, and cellist David Finckel — remained intact from 1979 to 2013 (when Watkins replaced Finckel), a run of astonishing stability. Along the way, with thousands of performances, dozens of recordings, and nine Grammy awards under its collective belt, the Emerson became the standard bearer for a particular playing style — lean, focused, and viscerally exciting — and for an encyclopedic approach to the repertoire.
But no quartet, except possibly the Juilliard, lasts forever. And there was a longstanding preference among the Emerson’s members that, as Setzer said in a phone interview, “we don’t want to play past when we should stop,” having seen other groups make that mistake.
So in August 2021, the quartet announced that this year would be its last. Having performed here and throughout New England dozens of times, the Emerson plays its final Boston concert, at Jordan Hall, on Jan. 22, in the Celebrity Series of Boston.
The question of when to make their exit had been kicking around, at least since that dinner in Dortmund. “We started to make a plan,” said Dutton by phone. “Like, ‘Maybe we’ll do five more years,’ or whatever. Then COVID came.”
The quartet lost virtually two years of activity and income, but its members had the opportunity (for the first time in years) to spend long periods at home with their families. (“I got to know my wife again!” Dutton joked.)
And, “I think it kind of pushed us a little bit more into really coming up with an end time,” Dutton continued. No one, after all, wanted to go out in the midst of a pandemic without saying a proper farewell to the Emerson’s large and loyal audience.
But there was a shared sense that the time was at hand. “We’ve played this music so much, and I love it to death, but it ain’t getting any easier,” Dutton said. He was referring in part to the physical challenges of string playing for aging musicians.
It was also a reference to the daily routine of a working, traveling quartet. Even for very successful groups like the Emerson, the familiar grind — airports, flights, rental cars, soundchecks, concerts, receptions, a few hours’ sleep, repeat — never really changes. Nor do the attendant hassles. Setzer remembers a recent trudge through one airport or another at 4:30 a.m.
“People wonder why we want to retire,” he remembered saying to Watkins, who responded, “Yeah, they should come on tour with us — they’d understand.”
The pace will not relent this year. The Emerson’s farewell tour is booked solid, not only in cities like Boston and New York but in smaller markets like Clinton, Conn., where the quartet plays May 14. “One of the first places that booked us,” Setzer noted.
“What we wanted to do,” Watkins said, “was thank all of the promoters, around the country and the world, who’d been supportive of the quartet from its earliest days. We wanted to go and say goodbye to them properly.”
The quartet has already given its last performances in places like Vienna and London. All three musicians noted the unusual warmth and intensity of the reception in these performances.
“They’re standing up and applauding before we even start playing, and it’s like, ‘Just wait a little bit and see if we still sound OK,’” cracked Dutton.
One last, though no less remarkable, Emerson achievement: They will go out having maintained warm friendships among all its members (and ex-members). This is no small feat: Quartets are famously fractious organisms, and the confrontations that often accompany high playing standards can inflict lasting damage to personal relationships.
“Those chemistries have been really amazing,” Dutton said. Explaining their relative harmony, Setzer mentioned a longstanding Emerson rule that any member had veto power over any decision, so that no one felt forced to do something they didn’t want to. “I think we’ve just managed to keep our senses of humor intact and not take ourselves too seriously,” he added.
He noted that before the quartet begins the tour leg that includes Boston, he and his wife planned to visit Drucker and his wife at their home in the Berkshires.
“Gene and I have been playing in a quartet for 52 years,” he said. “You’d think the last thing that would happen between the two of us would be to spend a couple of days relaxing in one of our houses.”
EMERSON STRING QUARTET
Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston
At Jordan Hall, Sunday, Jan. 22, 3 p.m. Tickets $65-99. 617-585-1260, www.celebrityseries.org