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February 14, 2012

End of an era: Cellist David Finckel to depart Emerson Quartet

Chamber groups do not just become like family to the players; they can become like family to audiences, too.

Over the years -- or decades -- as people see the same personnel, watch the musicians grow artistically, hear the tight interconnections of the music-making, an extra bond develops. It's almost as if you go to their concerts to hear old friends. So when a longtime member of an ensemble leaves, it gives one pause.

That's what happened with today's announcement that David Finckel, cellist in the Emerson Quartet, will depart at the end of the 2012-2013 season -- which is to say after 34 years. His successor will be ...

Welsh cellist Paul Watkins, a 16-year veteran of the London-based Nash Ensemble and former principal cellist of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. He also enjoys a career as a conductor.

By the time I first encountered the Emerson Quartet, at the Spoleto Festival USA, the current membership was in place. I imagine that's the only lineup a lot of us have ever known. And what a fabulous foursome -- violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violist Lawrence Dutton and Finckel.

Year after year, the Emerson has demonstrated finely matched technique, an intensity of focus, probing interpretations. These guys work together on a level that just seems to land naturally, inevitably on a higher plane. Things that might not work for others -- the violinists alternate first and second chair; the violinists and violist stand during performances -- work splendidly for this group.

Finckel has been a busy cellist outside the quartet for some time, and he wants to devote more time to that. Here's an excerpt from his statement:

"My colleagues of 33 years have been extremely understanding of my desire to pursue, with greater energy, my increasing number of performing, educational and presenting commitments that are independent of the quartet ...

I could not be happier to see [Paul Watkins] take my chair, nor can I wait to hear how marvelous the quartet will sound in its new incarnation ... I am equally excited for the opportunities that await me in the next chapter of my artistic and professional life."

Finckel's colleagues expressed their views in a joint statement:

“Our collegial feelings toward this marvelous cellist are mingled with awe and admiration for his manifold talents as a chamber music player, soloist and artistic director of two major presenting organizations and a recording company ... His passionate, uncompromising commitment to our art could serve as a beacon to those who have lost their way in these economically and culturally disorienting times ...

It is only fitting that David's successor be a multi-talented musician ... Since Paul is almost two decades younger than the rest of us, we see his coming both as an opportunity to reaffirm and renew our commitment to the musical values we have long held dear, and as a chance to ensure the continuation of the Emerson String Quartet beyond the participation of any individual member.”

Here's a taste of the Emerson magic:

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:32 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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