For more than 30 years, cellist David Finckel has been a member of what is arguably the definitive American string quartet, the Emerson. His example and influence permeate the wider classical music world, whether through his capacity as the co-Artistic Director of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center or the founder of Music@Menlo. As Finckel prepares to depart from the chamber music institution he helped build, passing the bow to Paul Watkins, we spoke to him by phone in anticipation of his final concert with the Emerson at Duke Performances on this Saturday, October 20. Finckel delves into his reasons for moving on and heralds a bright future for both himself and the Emerson.
The Thread: Why did you decide to leave the Emerson?
David Finckel: I’ve enjoyed a very fortunate career with the Emerson Quartet—not only a career, but a great education, musically and otherwise. The other three guys are like brothers to me. The great literature for the string quartet has basically formed the groundwork of my education. Playing Beethoven, Bartók, and Shostakovich provided me the context for all the music I play. Having more or less exhausted that repertoire over all these years, it’s the time in my life to move on to other music and scenarios.
Were there any thoughts of retiring the name or even the quartet?
Some years ago, we decided that we should think about the future of the quartet. It was pretty well assumed that we would pick a date and stop. Everyone felt good about this because no one wants to see the quartet play into an age when we do not play as well as we used to. Many people do that and it’s an ill-advised strategy. But frankly, we found the planning of final seasons to be rather depressing. So that grand plan, as much sense as it made, never got off the ground.
I got to a certain point where the pressures on me to pursue other things, internal and external, really got out of hand. I decided that for the sake of myself, my family, and the quartet, I should withdraw. I would never want to reach an age where I found myself resenting this quartet I love so much because it had kept me from other things in life. The name is staying the same because the aesthetic of the quartet is staying the same—socially, musically, ethically. The traditions I helped put in place will live on but evolve in qualified hands.
You already have a robust career as a musician, teacher, and more outside of the Emerson. What will most occupy your time going forward?
I’ve enjoyed a vibrant partnership with my wife, the pianist Wu Han, since the early 1980s, which I look forward to expanding. Time-wise, our career together is practically commensurate with my time with the Emerson. I have a concerto repertoire I’m obligated to that will require intensive preparation, and I have solo projects such as the Bach cello suites that I look forward to devoting a lot of time to. In addition to that, I’m very interested in education. Perhaps listeners know that I’m director of Music@Menlo and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, both of which have very robust educational programs. I’ve also accepted a teaching position for cello at the Juilliard School. I have a lot to give back, a lot to share with younger musicians, and it’s a new, very great joy in my life.
This is clearly not any kind of retirement.
Everyone’s first perception is that I’m about to go off and play golf somewhere. [Laughs] Nothing could be further from the truth.
You accomplished what you wanted with the Emerson, but did you have any sentimental resistance to leaving?
It’s a little scary to leave something that’s been so much a part of your life. I try not to dwell on it, but this season, in every venue, people are coming up and saying goodbye. It feels a little like a death sentence sometimes. [Laughs] In some places, where I won’t be likely to return in one of my other configurations such as the trio with Phil Setzer, it really will be a goodbye.
Have you had any especially touching feedback from audience members?
The most touching thing has happened to me many times is when people come up after a concert and simply thank me for all the music I’ve given them over the years. I can turn right around and thank them for all the listening and the opportunities to play for them, which is what my life is in many respects.
When is your final concert with the Emerson, and will anything special be happening there?
It’s on May 11 in Washington, but before that, we’re going to Europe and Russia—all over the place. I’ve a lot of miles yet to log with the Emerson Quartet. I know there is going to be a groundswell around this final concert and I’ve heard that people are traveling in from all over. But other than a nice party at a friend’s house afterwards, we’re not planning any fanfare. It’s about a new beginning for the Quartet, and the way I see it, the first concert that Paul Watkins plays will be just as much of a cause for fanfare as my final one.
And all five of you will perform together at that concert?
It’s a traditional kind of handover performance for quartets, when they change cellists, to play the quintet by Schubert with the extra cellist, because both cellists can play together and both parts are magnificent. There’s a first cello part and a second, and the guest artist usually plays the second. Paul will join us in the second half to play that part, so we can introduce him to the audience. In subsequent performances, where I am invited back to be a guest artist with the Emerson, I will play the second cello part. So it all works out very beautifully.
We discussed the ways in which this feels bittersweet—are there also ways in which it’s a relief?
The thing I’m most excited about is finding out what free time actually is for the first time in three decades. But I’m also very excited about the new model the Emerson has adopted, where it no longer plans to set a stop-date, but rather to re-imagine itself as a self-perpetuating institution. Paul Watkins is the most terrific cellist you can imagine. He’s so excited to come in and it will be a source of incredible joy for me to watch him take my position and to keep track of my beloved ensemble as it evolves into the future.
The first time you sit in the audience at an Emerson concert, will it be very strange?
I think it’s going to be wonderful and I can’t wait!
Did you have a hand in selecting Mr. Watkins as your replacement?
Absolutely. I was not going to sit on the sidelines and say, “Just get whoever you want.” My own personal suggestions were very few, and Paul was at the very top of the list. It was a moment of incredible elation when he said that he was really interested. I couldn’t believe it because the guy has to move to America from London with his whole family, an enormous life change. That makes me excited, to see that he is so committed and passionate.
As we contemplate the Emerson’s future, can you walk us back to its origins?
The origins lie in the Juilliard School, where it began as a student quartet. I was not there at the time; I never went to Juilliard. The irony is that now I’m the only member of the Emerson on its faculty. They had an original cellist and violist who, when the Quartet started to become a very serious ensemble, decided the touring life was not for them and left on very good terms. But that all happened within a few years, between 1976 and 1979, so essentially, the Emerson has been the same four people since the 1979/80 season. I heard the Quartet’s debut concert in Alice Tully Hall. At the time, I had no idea that someday I would be sitting on that stage with them, and even less idea that I would be the chief programmer of Alice Tully Hall. The things I’m doing now, if you would have told me 30 years ago, I would have thought you were crazy.
Is there any advice for young musicians you wish someone had given you?
People make whole careers out of giving advice to young musicians, because the arts is a business with no guarantees or formulas for success. Failure sometimes comes when you least expect it, as does success. I think what can remain constant for a musician, and should always be protected, is the basic love of music and respect for the greatness of the form. Commitment to the art is one of humanity’s greatest achievements—as long as that doesn’t waver, I think it’s the best chance for a young musician’s success.