The Emerson: A music institution gets a fresh face |

The Emerson: A music institution gets a fresh face

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times

The Emerson String Quartet, with new cellist Paul Watkins, right, performs tonight at Harris Hall.
Lisa-Marie Mazzucco |

Emerson String Quartet

Thursday night at 8

Harris Hall

Becoming a new member of the Emerson String Quartet is no small thing. For one, the Emerson is an institution of the first order in classical music. The quartet has been in existence for 37 years, has played and recorded essentially the entire significant string-quartet repertoire and has earned nine Grammy awards. Secondly, the last time the Emerson had a change in membership was during the Carter administration.

Given the myriad issues — personalities, business, schedules — that would come with the introduction of a new member, it would make sense that in effecting such a transition, the group would want to minimize the musical challenges. Anyone applying for the position, it is assumed, would be extremely well-versed in quartet repertoire.

But Paul Watkins, who became the Emerson’s cellist in May, replacing David Finckel, likens his joining the group to falling in love. It doesn’t necessarily follow logic; you know the right partner through the heart more than the head. Most illogical is that Watkins, who is in his early 40s, does not have an extensive history performing in string quartets. In the London-based Nash Ensemble, of which he was a member for 16 years, he played a wide variety of chamber music but without a deep immersion in quartets.

“The string-quartet repertoire that the Emerson plays — Beethoven, Britten, Bartok, Haydn — is stuff I know very well from listening, reading. But preparing it for quartet playing, I’ve done very little,” he said.

The relationship is still in its earliest stage. Watkins played his first full performance with the Emerson at the end of May in Montreal. When he makes his Aspen debut tonight at Harris Hall, with a program of Haydn, Britten and Beethoven, it will be his seventh concert with the quartet.

The initial meeting — the “blind date,” as Watkins calls it — took place in New York City early in 2012. Watkins, a Welsh-born musician who grew up playing music with his parents and went on to study for five years at the Yehudi Menuhin School near London, gathered with the Emerson — violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer and violist Lawrence Dutton — for a Saturday afternoon spent reading movements of quartets that Watkins was most familiar with. The relationship was sealed that very day, and the Emerson concluded its search with the first and only musician it tried out.

“After a couple of hours, we were all smiling, got the champagne out,” Watkins, who had previously done some chamber-music performances with Dutton and Setzer, said Wednesday morning in the lobby of the Limelight Hotel. “I didn’t think it would be that quick.”

Watkins didn’t know the decision would be so instantaneous. But he did recognize an instant chemistry.

“From that first note, it sounded blended and unified. We all wanted to have that same quartet sound,” he said. “It’s about listening — musicians listen and respond in different ways, and I thought I could respond in a way that made sense to them.

“The other thing that’s really important, the rhythm, our understanding of playing together, is very similar. If we had different ideas of rhythm, how to put the notes together, it wouldn’t have worked.”

Taking things to the next level of seriousness has, for Watkins, been as intoxicating as initially winning the hand of the Emerson. Watkins has been delving into quartet music in a way he never has before. Even though the Emerson is limiting for the moment its performance repertoire while the new guy gets up to speed, Watkins is finding that one of classical music’s bits of conventional wisdom — that the legendary composers tended to pour everything they had into the string-quartet form — is true.

“It’s the greatest repertoire in the world,” said Watkins, who spent several years, beginning at age 20, focused on orchestral music, as principal cellist of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. “Some of the greatest composers ever put their greatest thoughts into quartet repertoire. The music is stunning.”

And playing it with the Emerson has its scary moments. This summer has seen the quartet making the rounds of the major festivals, including Caramoor in upstate New York and Tanglewood in Massachusetts, where the Emerson is revered (in Aspen, the quartet has spent 28 summers in residence) and where Watkins is an unknown quantity.

“These last few weeks, it has been daunting,” he said.

Watkins slept poorly in his Limelight Lodge bed Tuesday night, which he chalked up to a combination of altitude and nerves. But the nervousness tends to disappear when he performs with the Emerson, lost in the thrill of being part of a legendary quartet.

“I keep having these moments where I have to pinch myself: ‘I’m on stage with the Emerson playing Beethoven’s middle quartets!’” he said. “There’s at least half a dozen moments each concert where I feel like I’m dreaming because everything’s going really, really well. A best-job-in-the-world kind of thing.”

On the subject of the Emerson choosing to bring in a new member without a deep history of performing quartets, Watkins brings up the internationally renowned, Colorado-based Takacs Quartet. He noted that when co-founder Gabor Takacs-Nagy left the group, he was replaced by a musician, Edward Dusinberre, who was relatively new to quartet literature.

“And that was the first violinist,” Watkins said.

But Watkins does see the logic in the decision. For an ensemble that has been together nearly four decades, some truly fresh blood can refresh the whole enterprise.

“If I can speak for the other three, they’re enjoying the rehearsal process and maybe rehearsing a little more, than they’re used to,” he said. “Any quartet worth its salt is not recycling its programs without rehearsing.”

With any relationship, what looks smooth from the outside is usually the product of a major effort. So it is with the Emerson and its new cellist.

“I probably haven’t concentrated so hard for a two-month period for a long time,” Watkins said. “It’s hard work. It’s repertoire they’ve been playing for 30-something years and I’ve been playing a few months.”