Last Tuesday, we spoke with outgoing Emerson String Quartet cellist David Finckel, who plays his final Duke Performances concert with the Emerson on Saturday, about his illustrious tenure with the quartet and his plans for tomorrow. Now we follow up with ongoing Emerson violinist Philip Setzer to learn more about the quartet’s future with new cellist Paul Watkins. Setzer also gives a free, public master class in chamber music in the Nelson Music Room at 3:30.
The Thread: How does it feel to see David Finckel leaving the quartet after so long?
Philip Setzer: It was a bit of a shock. On the other hand, he has so many other endeavors, it’s kind of amazing he’s been able to do everything as well as he has and stay in the quartet full-time. I think it’s exciting, the idea of reinventing the quartet with a new member. We’re extremely happy about David’s replacement, Paul Watkins. We were talking about whether we should continue or not and the feeling was that if we could find the right person, we wanted to. We had a list of one we thought we would try first. This year is kind of sad because I keep thinking of pieces we’re playing with David for the last time and trying not to get too sentimental, but at the same time, looking forward to the next chapter with Paul. It’s a lot of mixed feelings, no question.
Why was Paul Watkins at the top of your shortlist?
I had heard great things about him and heard some of his recordings. I had not had the chance to play with him until two summers ago. I played with him, ironically, in David’s festival, Music@Menlo. We played two Brahms quintets together and the feeling was so easy, like we’d played together for years. The only other time I’ve ever had that feeling with a cellist was when I first played with David, so I thought that was a good sign. When we got together in New York and spent a number of days working on quartets, it was clear that this was the right musician and the right person for us.
He must have felt that connection too if he was willing to move his family across the ocean.
He’s in the process, looking for a house. He really wanted to do this from the moment we offered it to him, but he was hesitant because of his family, with two small kids. Part of the reason why he decided to do this is that his wife is Jennifer Laredo, who grew up in New York but has been living in London for years. She was hoping to come back and live in New York, so the timing was perfect for their family, which always comes first. The stars just seemed to be aligned.
What about Mr. Watkins’ prior resume?
He is very well-known in Europe, especially Britain, and getting to be better-known over here because every time people hear him, they just rave about him. He played for a number of years with the Nash Ensemble, and he’s also a conductor as the Music Director of the English Chamber Orchestra. He’ll be leaving the Nash, but continuing to conduct and continuing to be a well-known soloist. Likewise, I’ll be continuing to play with David Finckel and his wife, Wu Han, in a trio we have. The Emerson has always encouraged each other to do other things, and not just the quartet 24/7. I think one reason why quartets who only play together break up after awhile is that it’s just too intense. You need to play with other people and have a break from each other.
What qualities have to be present for the Emerson to be the Emerson?
I think the reason we’ve lasted is that our standards are incredibly high and we’re constantly working to improve. I’ve never felt that anyone has been complacent. We’ve done a tremendous amount of repertoire over the years and have always felt that if we didn’t enjoy what we were doing, it wasn’t worth it. We’re lucky that we’ve gotten along and everybody has a sense of humor. That’s another part of it with Paul—he’s very funny, and that really helps any kind of relationship. I think the main thing is the interest in the music.
How do you recalibrate the quartet around a new cellist?
What we need to do is play together a lot. You can only go so far with rehearsals and we need to get out there on stage. The experience I had playing with him on the Brahms quintet—he has a gorgeous sound, his pitch is impeccable, his sense of timing and leading and following; it was clear this guy can do anything. We welcome him to come in with his own ideas. We’ve played Death and the Maiden probably a few hundred times over the years and we’re going to play with Paul in the first season. I don’t want to do it exactly the same way; I’d love to have him come in with elements of a different approach.
Do you have another recording to follow up Mozart: The Prussian Quartets?
We’re preparing to release a CD of Schoenberg’s Verklaerte Nacht and Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence on Sony Classical. We’ve recorded everything and are in the process of editing to release sometime in the spring.
What is the resonance of Ralph Waldo Emerson for the quartet?
His idealism and individualism, and of course that he was American. Blending is almost the easiest thing because we’re four string players—you pull a bow across the strings and it’s going to blend. How do you bring out the individual characters of this play we’re putting on? When are you a supporting character and when do you take the spotlight, with respect to what’s in the score? The main thing is that the music for the string quartet will always be worth the commitment, to try and come up to its level.