Emerson String Quartet has new member, keeps standards

The new Emerson String Quartet is (from left) Eugene Drucker, Philip Setzer, Lawrence Dutton and Paul Watkins.
The new Emerson String Quartet is (from left) Eugene Drucker, Philip Setzer, Lawrence Dutton and Paul Watkins.
Photo by Lisa Mazzucco
| Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Change has finally come to the Emerson String Quartet, the American ensemble that for more than three decades has been one of the world's top quartets, and, many say, the top quartet.

The Emerson's first new member since its founding in 1976 is English cellist Paul Watkins, who began rehearsing with the group in May. After weeks of intensive rehearsals, the new Emerson gave its first concert at the end of May and continued with concerts at summer music festivals.

Founding cellist David Finckel left to pursue other artistic and personal goals, but certainly not to take it easy. He and his pianist wife, Wu Han, are co-artistic directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York City and of the Music at Menlo Chamber Music Festival and Institute in Atherton, Calif.

The Emerson String Quartet will open the Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society season Sept. 27 at Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland. The program is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Quartet No. 18 in E flat major, K. 428; Benjamin Britten's Quartet No. 3; and Ludwig van Beethoven's Quartet No. 9 in C, Op. 59, No. 3.

Watkins, 43, brings strikingly diverse experience to his new position. He was principal cellist of the BBC Symphony, has made commercial recordings as a solo cellist playing concerti, is a member of the Nash Ensemble and is conductor and music director of the English Chamber Orchestra — all based in London.

He says he's driven by “a desire to make music as often and with as great a variety as I can. I suppose the closest analogy is that a lot of sportsmen and women will often be good at a sport or two other than their main sport. In Europe, soccer players are often great golfers. I think some musicians are like that. We like to explore the widest variety of music, but that's not true for everyone.”

Watkins and his family moved to Westchester County, just north of New York City, in April. His wife, Jennifer, is the daughter of outstanding musicians — violinist Jaime Laredo and the late pianist Ruth Laredo. Their daughters are Emily, 11, and Eliza, 6.

He won't rank the various kinds of music making he does, but he will make comparisons.

“With my personal experience of having played all the Beethoven symphonies and conducted most of them, now having the chance to explore his quartets is a much more intense experience,” Watkins says. “It's no accident a lot of great composers from all eras, from the classical onward, have reserved some of their deepest and most intimate thoughts for the string quartet. It is a deep, intimate medium that does not have the showiness or pizzazz of an orchestral concert, but what it makes up in those terms is an incredibly passionate dialogue.”

Mark Kanny is classical music critic of Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.com.

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