Photo: Ilona Oltuski
Yesterday, May 6th at the WQXR Greene Space, the iconic Emerson String Quartet said goodbye with a small nod to New York audiences and listeners on the radio, before heading off to Washington’s Smithsonian’s Baird Auditorium for the final performance of their fare-well-tour.
The quartet’s Journeys recording is set to be released May 20th, and the Greene Space performance offered selections of the CD’s works, including Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, and Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence, both of which are pieces for two violins, two violas, and two cellos. The quartet performed and recorded these works in conjunction with violist Paul Neubauer and cellist Colin Carr.
The last piece, Schubert’s melancholic C-major String quartet, was performed by the Emerson group in the formation for which they have become renowned over the past 34 years or so, during which time they have together garnered 9 Grammys, and lived through 40 recordings. The quartet has seen many wonderful times, yet year after year, performing 100 concerts annually and traveling on 100 trips, even the best of teams can undergo many challenges.
The melancholic melodies, despite the cheerful key of C-Major, were appropriate for the mood in the room where questions loomed: why now, and why at all, did David Finckel, the group’s cellist, decide to leave? He had only recently broken the news to the other members of the quartet. When asked by WQXR’s radio host Jeff Spurgeon, to relay his reasons for leaving the quartet after such a long time, given a mere thirty seconds to answer, Finckel’s utterings about still having mountains to climb did not really seem to tell the whole story; his plate seems to have been quite full for a while now.
An energetic powerhouse of a cellist, and obviously a great steering force, together with his wife, pianist Wu Han, Finckel operates a record label called ArtistLed and is co-Artistic Director of The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and founder and co-Artistic Director of Music@Menlo. Finckel is also co-Artistic Director of Chamber Music Today, as well as The Mendelssohn Fellowship in Korea; he acts as Professor of Cello at The Juilliard School, and also Visiting Professor of Music at Stony Brook University. Compared to the other members of the touring quartet, it seems as though Finckel has had to juggle many more roles outside the group, even as he acted as a significant energetic catalyst for the group’s enormous success.
While Finckel was the group’s latest edition, having in 1979 replaced Eric Wilson, the cellist of the original 1976 quartet, he has become a pillar of the Emerson as we know it: the Emerson that’s about to split up now.
Violinists Philip Setzer and Eugene Drucker, who take turns playing first and second violin, and violist Lawrence Dutton, are wonderful musicians, all of whom have been mentored by old school master Menahem Pressler of the Beaux Arts Trio. Their choice of Watkins points to a succesful future of the Emerson String Quartet and its generational continuum.
The 43-year-old Welsh cellist and first music director of the English Chamber Orchestra, Paul Watkins, is slated to replace Finckel.
Finckel’s last performance with the Emerson Quartet in Washington will be a shared bill featuring Watkins in his new position. Apparently Watkins was just a phone call away, even if via London, according to Setzer’s description of their meeting through Pressler, as he told it in the Greene Space interview. Setzer had already mentioned to his wife that Watkins would indeed make a wonderful addition to the Quartet even before Finckel had ever given his official notice.
One cannot help but think that the drama portrayed in the recent film, A Late Quartet, touches on all possible personality conflicts between the different egos in a String quartet: these intimate colleagues who must strive for harmonious balance in light of constant contrast, but also passionately follow their own callings, and allow their individual voices to be heard.
Well, perhaps it’s just simply time to move on, but whatever the reason or reasons may be, the Emerson will be missed. Long live the Emerson.