The Emerson String Quartet has been among the most regular of Boston’s visiting ensembles. Sunday’s concert will be the group’s 20th appearance in the Celebrity Series of Boston, and the fifth consecutive season it has played Jordan Hall.
This concert will be a different type of milestone: the Emerson’s final Boston appearance with cellist David Finckel, whose departure at the end of the current season was announced by the quartet in February. While change is often the norm for long-running quartets, the Emerson’s lineup has been astonishingly durable. Finckel’s exit marks the group’s first personnel change in 34 years, when he joined the quartet, in 1979. He will be succeeded next spring by British cellist Paul Watkins.
Eugene Drucker, one of the Emerson’s violinists, said by phone from New York that the announcement “was not entirely a shock — simply because David has always been so extremely busy with his other commitments, increasingly so over the years.”
He wasn’t kidding. In addition to quartet duties, Finckel, along with his wife, pianist Wu Han, directs the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and the Music@Menlo festival, and they recently became the directors of a South Korean festival called Chamber Music Today. In addition, they run a record label, ArtistLed, play duo recitals, and hold down an occasional trio with Emerson violinist Philip Setzer. Finckel is also on the faculty of Stony Brook University, where the Emerson is in residence.
“Given all that,” Drucker continued, “it did not come as a complete surprise. Maybe it was a bit of a shock, simply because David always seemed able to handle this huge volume of work, and in fact, seemed to crave it.”
But, said Finckel from Gainesville, Fla., in a recent interview, “a couple of years ago, I started to realize that all the pressing opportunities and obligations that I had created for myself outside the quartet were beginning to encroach on me to such a degree that I felt as though I was just barely able to fulfill them all adequately.”
He added that the quartet had been having conversations about its future and legacy. Instead of focusing on his Emerson tenure as a burden to be borne indefinitely, Finckel began thinking of it more as a gift. “It’s an incredible privilege to play a late Beethoven quartet, and it’s a privilege to play it with those three guys,” he said. “I thought to myself, how many more years of this do I really deserve? Or should I give somebody else a chance?”
That made the idea of his departing less of a crisis in the quartet’s life and more of a chance to safeguard its future. “I started thinking about that idea: somebody who was younger and did not have the experience and was really eager to come in and devote a fresh kind of energy to the quartet, and make a life out of it, as I had made a life out of it when I was in my 20s.”
In August 2011, Finckel sent an e-mail to Drucker, Setzer, and violist Lawrence Dutton, telling them he wanted to leave the Emerson. According to Drucker, they understood his reasons and supported his decision. But they weren’t certain they wanted to go through the process of auditioning and integrating a new cellist. A number of options were discussed among the quartet members and their management. In some scenarios, the Emerson would transition to a new lineup; in others, it would wind down and cease to exist.
Finally, about two months after Finckel’s e-mail, Drucker, Setzer, and Dutton decided they wanted to go on. And, said Drucker, “We were extremely fortunate that the first person we had in mind turned out to be available.” Dutton had played chamber music with Watkins and raved to his colleagues about him. Drucker even remembers Dutton saying, in the past, that were Finckel to leave someday, “This is the person I’d want to play with.”
It was not a simple decision for Watkins, whose career as both a cellist and conductor has been rooted in London, and who has two children. Yet a reading session last January showed “terrific chemistry” among the four players, according to Drucker, and Watkins agreed to become the Emerson’s cellist soon after. No one was happier than Finckel.
“It was one of the great days of my life,” he said. “That a cellist of that caliber, and there aren’t many, would uproot himself and his family and move to America to join the Emerson Quartet — I think that gave the quartet a tremendous shot in the arm. . . . And it opens the door for each member to leave when it’s right for him, without threatening the existence of the quartet. Which is a huge burden lifted off everybody — especially me.”
The new model Emerson String Quartet will make its debut in Montreal on May 30 and spend much of the summer in rehearsals and residencies, to allow the new lineup to jell. As for Finckel, he will have more time to devote to his current engagements and take on new ones, including a new teaching position at the Juilliard School. “Almost everybody that I’ve talked to about this has said, don’t fill up the table right away,” he said, noting that the Juilliard invitation came the day after he announced he was leaving the Emerson.
His last concert with the Emerson will be in Washington, D.C., on May 11. The quartet will be joined by Watkins for the Schubert String Quintet. Finckel knows that the concert will be “a tumultuous occasion.” He is striving to keep perspective.
“I’m trying to play it down because it’s not like it’s my last concert,” he said. “It’s not the end of the Emerson Quartet. It’s not the end of anything. Of course, I could ramp up the emotions as high as you want. I could say, this is the last time I’m going to turn this page, or, this is the last time I’m going to play this C-sharp. And I’ll be a wreck. But I’m not going to do that. My first job is to go out there and play the pieces. And I just hope it’ll be a good feeling.”
New Pops season lineup
The new Boston Pops season will focus on film music, including selections from movies both classic and contemporary. The season, announced today, will open on May 8 with movie themes including “Gone With the Wind” and “Casablanca,” as well as selections from Disney’s “Fantasia” and works by John Williams. The second half of opening night features country star Vince Gill joining the Pops under the direction of Keith Lockhart. A program focusing on music from both “Fantasia” and “Fantasia 2000” follows (May 9-11), and the season also includes concerts focusing on Pixar animated films, under the direction of Thomas Wilkins (June 4-5) . And Williams, without whom no film-focused season would be complete, conducts four concerts that will include selections from “Lincoln,” his most recent collaboration with director Steven Spielberg (June 7, 8, 11-12).
Other highlights of the season include a tribute to Marvin Hamlisch (May 14-15), a program of Hollywood love songs with actress and singer Megan Hilty (May 23- 24), and a song-and-dance flavored evening with Matthew Morrison of “Glee” (May 28- 29).
Tickets go on sale Dec. 5.