Emerson String Quartet's David Finckel Bows Out After 34 Years

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The Emerson String Quartet, one of the most respected string quartets of its day, will lose a member for the first time in 34 years. Cellist David Finckel said he will step down at the end of the 2012-13 season. Paul Watkins, an English cellist who also has an active career as a conductor, will replace him.

Watkins, 42, became music director of the English Chamber Orchestra in 2009 and is the principal guest conductor of the Ulster Orchestra in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

In an interview with WQXR's Elliott Forrest, Finckel, who joined the Emerson Quartet in 1979, said the time commitments of touring had become too demanding. "Hardly anyone realizes until you do it how much time it takes to travel and play a concert," he explained. "In order to do all of the things in my life I really want to do so badly I needed to cut out some of my activities."

Finckel, 60, along with his wife, the pianist Wu Han, is the co-artistic director of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, with a contract that runs through the 2012-13 season. He is also a producer of Artistled, a label, and a director of Music@Menlo, a summer music festival in Silicon Valley.

Finckel said that the other members of the quartet were "shocked but not surprised" when he announced in August his intentions to leave the quartet. Philip Setzer, a violinist in the quartet, echoed that point. "Of course, the first reaction is one of shock," Setzer said. "It put us in a very interesting time and a very difficult time of deciding what do we want to do." He and the remaining members had conversations about the future of the quartet and decided that they wanted to continue on and soon began considering successors.

In a phone interview from Ulster, Watkins said the invitation to join the Emerson came "out of the blue" in a January call from Emerson violist Lawrence Dutton. "It was really a lightning bolt and I had to think of it a lot," he said. "And of course I went to play with the quartet and that was an incredible clincher. It just seemed to fit so easily together and so quickly together."

He will now step down as the cellist of the Nash Ensemble, a post he's held since 1997.

Some string quartets will approach a personnel transition with an extended, public audition process, the most recent example being that of the Tokyo String Quartet, which is in the process of finding two new members. But Watkins said he had played alongside two of the Emerson members in the past -- Dutton and violinist Setzer -- which in this case was enough to achieve a consensus with the third member, violinist Eugene Drucker.

Watkins said that he and his wife are in the process of looking for a home in the New York area. Because the Emerson schedules its touring and rehearsing in discrete blocks, he added, "I think it will be easy to plan my conducting activities, which is really the other side of my musical life."

Considering the future of the Emerson, Setzer said Finckel's departure was very amicable. "There are not bad feelings here at all," he said. "The sadness is ending something like this that's lasted this long. The four of us are like brothers. But now we have a new brother."

Paul Watkins on joining the Emerson:

David Finckel on his highlights in the Emerson:

Setzer on choosing Paul Watkins: