It doesn't happen often. In fact, the Emerson String Quartet, which since its founding in 1976 has established itself as one of the world's top chamber music ensembles, had not had a personnel change for 34 years.
In 2012, the New York-based ensemble announced that its cellist, David Finckel, would be departing on amicable terms after the 2012-2013 season to pursue his own musical interests, and that British cellist and conductor Paul Watkins would replace him. This was no mere human relations maneuver, and no open audition was held. A 25 percent change in musicians would demand that any new player has the technical and musical ability to match the Emerson String Quartet -- not to mention that certain je ne sais quoi so intrinsic to a group's sound, blend and identity.
The Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society has presented the Emerson String Quartet 16 times, but a concert at 7:30 tonight at Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland will mark the first performance with Mr. Watkins on cello.
I caught up with Mr. Watkins by phone. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
Have you been to Pittsburgh before?
I've never been to Pittsburgh before.
Do you have any plans for your first trip here?
Well, as is often the case in the life of a traveling musician, there's precious little time to look around. ... We often come in on the day and get straight to rehearsing or whatever. I think if I get a little time to look around before the afternoon rehearsal I'd be interested to see the Downtown. I've been told the hall is absolutely incredible, so really looking forward to that.
Make an analogy for the layperson. Being the new member of the Emerson String Quartet is akin to ...
Ah right, well ... that's a difficult analogy, really. People often describe a string quartet as a marriage between four people. It's really like a four-way relationship. For me, it's like slipping into a very, very intense and detailed and loving relationship between these musicians. One of them's left for his own reasons, with no acrimony at all, just he's moving onto different things. I've got to come and make sure I don't upset the balance of the thing too much. I suppose it would also be in a way like a new member coming into a sports team or something, but I guess it would have to be a small sports team, of just four people.
Maybe doubles tennis or something.
You've been in Emerson since May. Do you still feel like the new guy?
I guess I'm going to feel like the new guy for quite some time, and that's absolutely fine. The reason that I decided to sell my house and move my family and come across the Atlantic was that after playing with them even just for a relatively short period of time -- way back last year, in fact at the beginning of 2012, we played together just privately -- I felt that we had such a rapport already, that it seemed like fitting in and being the new guy wasn't going to be a difficult process, really.
So you're from the UK, and you've spent most of your life there. And I know your wife is from New York, right?
That's correct. She's terribly excited to be back. We had a wonderful 20 years together in London, but it was always in the back of my mind, of our minds, that ... I would look for an opportunity, or we would think about living on this side of the pond, as well. And this seems like the perfect, well it is, the perfect time to come.
What's the biggest difference between living over here versus living in the UK?
Oh, well, my goodness me. Well, the gas is cheaper, but the bagels are better.... I know the United States very well, and particularly the East Coast, because I've been coming back to visit my wife's family for the last 20 years, and also to do concerts here. But what I really love is just the incredible, positive attitude of everybody, certainly involved in my line of work, in the classical world, which is often one that is depicted as being in crisis, and rather negative and particularly always some stuff with U.S. orchestras that's been going on and is still going on in some cases. There's a lot that one could be extremely negative about, but on the other hand, all the people that I work with, that I'm very fortunate to work with at the moment, they're incredibly positive, and I think that's a wonderful thing.
Complete the following sentence: Every classical music lover should have BLANK album in his or her collection.
Oh wow, um. I would say every classical music lover should have Glenn Gould's Goldberg Variations in their collection.
What do you listen to on your drive to work?
I haven't quite figured that out. I can't drive at the moment. I have my driving test next week. So technically, I am not allowed to drive here. When I do pass my test, which I hope to God I will, I like to listen to Baroque music actually, a lot.
What's your favorite book?
That's a really difficult one. That's a hard one. I really love Thomas Hardy, and Joseph Conrad, as well.
OK, so we can say favorite authors. That'll work.
You can say favorite authors. But if you've got space, I'd love to plug one of the violinists of the Emerson Quartet. Eugene Drucker has also written a novel, about a German violinist in the Holocaust, which I've just finished reading and it's absolutely shattering, really, really devastating book. I would recommend that to anybody. It's called "The Savior."music