When the Emerson String Quartet's cellist of 34 years, David Finckel, announced to his colleagues in 2011 that his decision to retire from the group, for the first time in more than three decades the quartet briefly faced an uncertain artistic future.
"There were a few days thinking, What if we can't find somebody that's really going to work? We certainly don’t want to compromise in any way, personally or musically or professionally," said violinist Philip Setzer, a founding member of the Emerson String Quartet, in a recent phone interview.
Good thing, then, that they found the British cellist Paul Watkins, former principal cellist with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, former cellist with the Nash Ensemble and an established soloist and conductor on the international concert stage. Watkins transplanted himself and his family from London to New York to join the Emersons, first performing with the group during the 2013-14 season.
The Emerson String Quartet will perform its first Columbus concert with its new cellist Saturday, April 25 at 8 p.m. in the Southern Theatre. A public interview with the artists will precede the concert, at 7 p.m.
The performance, presented by Chamber Music Columbus, will feature two fantasias by Henry Purcell; Haydn's String Quartet Op, 76, No. 1; Benjamin Britten's String Quartet No. 2, Op. 36 and Beethoven's String Quartet, Op. 132.
How Watkins came to join the Emerson String Quartet is a story of opportunity meeting preparation, a good luck story that has the air of destiny about it.
"We still can't believe how easily it all worked out," said Setzer of Watkins' joining the quartet. "This was absolutely the right choice."
Becoming an Emerson
All musicians in a string quartet are at once soloists and team players, but a quartet cellist, in particular, plays a truly fundamental role.
"A lot of things in a quartet come sort of from the bottom up in terms of sound production, in terms of intonation," Setzer said. "Everybody who doesn’t play in a quartet or work with it, imagines that it all comes from the first violin going down, but in terms of the actual way that a string quartet functions, the cello is the foundation."
When faced with Finckel's decision to leave the Emerson Quartet, the group's three other members - Setzer, violinist Eugene Drucker and violist Lawrence Dutton - knew they had more than just big shoes to fill. So they talked strategy. And they consulted with Finckel.
"When we asked David who he would recommend, or who he thought would be good," Setzer said, "knowing a lot of cellists out there, he said, 'Well, my first choice would be Paul Watkins, but there's no way you're going to get him because he lives in England.'"
Setzer, Drucker and Dutton knew of Watkins' esteemed reputation through other top-tier professional musicians, including Watkins' father-in-law, the violinist Jaime Laredo. Setzer had also at that time recently performed with Watkins at the Music@Menlo festival. With all signs seemingly pointing to Watkins, the Emersons opted for what they thought might be the clearest path to a new cellist.
"Instead of making a list of all of the wonderful cellists and going sort of down the list and auditioning a lot of people - because so many people are our friends, it would be so, I don’t know, messy - we decided, Why don’t we just see if Paul’s interested and maybe play with him? Let’s just see," Setzer said.
Dutton called Watkins and asked if he would consider joining the quartet and relocating to New York City.
"My wife is a New Yorker born and bred, so it seemed like a very nice idea to come and put own some roots on this side of the Atlantic. And from that point of view, it was an easy decision to make," Watkins said by phone.
Setzer, Drucker and Dutton each spoke with Watkins and his wife, Jennifer Laredo, in a series of translatlantic phone conversations. The Emersons invited Watkins to join them in New York for two days to play through some quartets. Watkins accepted the invitation.
"I always had in the back of my mind that when we first played together it was going to be really pretty much a yes/no decision, not really a maybe decision," Watkins said. "If there was any kind of maybe involved, I think we all thought it would be not right for us. We had to go for a kind of love-at-first-sight thing, and luckily that happened."
After playing with the quartet for only a couple of hours, Watkins knew it was a match.
"I just found that I seemed to fit in so well with the way the guys play that most of any of the apprehensions I had about moving my life, which I’d already established in London over 20 years, they sort of flew away, actually," Watkins said.
He told the other musicians he wanted the job, if they still wanted him.
"And so the three of us kind of looked at each other, and then we just kind of stood up and shook hands with him, and that was it," Setzer said. "We didn't have to have any discussion. It just felt so wonderful. And it's funny, because the only other time that I ever felt just sitting down playing with somebody that it just fit perfectly was when David actually first played with the quartet to audition to come into the quartet some thirty, forty years ago now. So I think that was a good sign, too, that Paul was the right person. It's been great. It was the right decision for everybody."
"A Different Kind of Energy"
So, does the Emerson String Quartet sound different with its new cellist? In a word, yes.
Unlike Setzer, Drucker, Dutton and Fnickel, who play instruments made by the contemporary New York-based luthier Samuel Zygmuntowicz, Watkins plays a much older cello, with a much different kind of sound.
"(It's a) very beautiful, round kind of sound," Setzer said. "David's sound is incredibly clear and beautiful, maybe not quite as round a tone in part because of the different kind of instrument."
The change in personnel also has changed the personal chemistry of the group.
"They’re different people, there's a different kind of energy," Setzer said of Watkins and Finckel. "And if you were to replace any of us with somebody else, it would be different. I find it hard to imagine, though, that we could have found anybody better than David in 1979 and that we could have found anybody better than Paul in 2011."
But if there is an "Emerson way" of rehearsing and performing that remains the same, it might well be the quartet's enthusiastic support of the expressive freedom of each of its members.
"One of the overriding characteristics of the Emerson Quartet is that it's a quartet that's not so much concerned with blend and total unanimity of purpose – although that's certainly high on our agenda and it comes naturally after nearly forty years of playing together – but more preserving the individual personalities of each quartet member," Watkins said.
And the longtime Emerson musicians are extending the same freedom now to Watkins.
"We've said (to Watkins) right from the beginning, 'We don't want to just do it the way we do it and you have to fit in. That's no good, that's not going to be fun for you and it's not going to be that interesting for us. So we'd rather explore,'" Setzer said. "Right from the beginning we encouraged Paul to try anything that he would want to try."
"Very Joyous Work"
While settling in stateside, Watkins is continuing his work as soloist and conductor on the global stage, and branching out here in the U.S. This summer will mark his first season as artistic director of Detroit's Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival, which Watkins characterizes as "a festival with a broad American feel." Next month, Watkins also will make a recording of American music with his brother, the composer and pianist Huw Watkins.
By the end of the 2015-16 concert season, Watkins will have performed his first complete Beethoven cycle with the Emerson String Quartet, and he'll continue to work on mastering the quartet repertoire - a steep learning curve, but one that, for Watkins, hits just the right note.
"It’s been relatively easy to move into the string quartet world because my three colleagues have such a wealth of experience," Watkins said. "They're incredibly warm and accepting people and also very warm and accepting musicians. So basically, it's been a lot of work, but very joyous work, I would say."
The Emerson String Quartet performs Saturday, April 25 at 8 p.m. in the Southern Theatre on the Chamber Music Columbus series. A public interview with the artists precedes the concert, at 7 p.m.