Cellist David Finckel Plans Exit Strategy from Emersons
Finckel will be replaced by Paul Watkins after 2012–13 season; he joins the Juilliard School faculty this fall
It’s late in the workday, but acclaimed cellist David Finckel is ready to talk about the biggest news from the Emerson String Quartet since its nine Grammy Awards, Avery Fisher Prize, and complete quartet cycles: he’s quitting.
Finckel props up his elbows on the table and stares out of the glass-encased conference room at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Passersby ogle their tireless 60-year-old leader. “By the time this date hit, I’ve basically just sat in the eye of the storm, watching all of this go around,” Finckel says. “The Emerson Quartet has been in some people’s minds like the Rock of Gibraltar, and now all of a sudden this big chunk of it falls off and disappears in the ocean.”
On Valentine’s Day, Finckel announced that he would leave the Emersons at the end of the 2012–13 season after 34 years of service. His replacement will be 42-year-old British cellist Paul Watkins, a soloist who is additionally praised for his work and leadership in the Nash Ensemble and English Chamber Orchestra. In April, the Juilliard School announced that Finckel will join the faculty this fall.
Many, including Emerson violinist Eugene Drucker, were initially surprised but not necessarily shocked by his decision to leave the ensemble, given Finckel’s busy schedule. In addition to his life in the Emersons, Finckel, along with his wife, the lauded pianist Wu Han, has been co-directing several organizations: the CMS (as well as organizing its chamber-music events worldwide), the California-based summer chamber-music festival Music@Menlo, and the ArtistLed recording label. He also performs in assorted ensembles with Han.
“It’s been equally surprising to many people that I’ve been able to stay in the quartet and do all these things in the first place,” says Finckel, adding, “You need life experiences to enrich you and to make you a constant source of new and interesting information and ideas.”
Drucker admires his friend and colleague for making this tough decision. “David wants to keep his finger on the pulse of what’s going on in the classical-music scene in New York,” Drucker says during a phone interview. “I think that passionate interest is one of the things that equip him to be the artistic director of the [CMS] and create his own festivals.”
Finckel’s decision freed him from the Emersons’ touring schedule, which peaked at more than 100 concerts a year, and lifted the “the staggeringly depressing subject of how and when to end the Emerson Quartet,” Finckel says.
Under the new scheme, the Emersons will reduce the number of concerts to between 65 to 75 a year and keep replacing retiring members. “The idea was to aim for the continuously regenerating Emerson String Quartet that would be similar to the Juilliard Quartet,” Drucker says.
By freeing up time, Finckel plans on teaching chamber music at Juilliard while nurturing the younger CMS members by building on the education initiatives and expanding his organization’s reach outside of New York with the St. Cecilia Music Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Wigmore Hall in London, and strengthening relationships in Asia and South America.
He also wants to focus on solo repertoire. Last summer at Music@Menlo, Watkins gave Finckel his recording of the Britten Cello Symphony, “one of the most daunting, jaw dropping pieces for the cello of the 20th century,” Finckel says. “I’m telling people that it’s time for me to learn the Britten Symphony and it’s time for Paul to learn the Beethoven quartets.”
Watkins welcomes the challenge. “I’m really looking forward to doing Bartok,” Watkins says during a phone interview. “I was brought up on their Deutsche Grammophon recording, and I just listened to that as a late teenager when that record came out.”
And how does he feel about the challenge of filling Finckel’s chair?
“He may be two decades older than me, but I’ve never met a man with more energy than David Finckel in my life,” Watkins laughs. “He’s just an extraordinary dynamo.”
As night falls on Lincoln Center, Han summons her husband so that the two may finally go home. “I’m not packing up and moving to Australia and becoming a pharmacist or something,” Finckel says. “But I do feel like I’m at the dawn of a new age for me where there’s this light shining at me and I can’t quite see what’s out there, but it’s nice. There’s a brightness that’s coming at me.
“It’s very exciting.”