Some new musical chemistry will be in play on Tuesday when the Emerson String Quartet performs works by Mozart and Mendelssohn at Meany Hall, along with the Quintet in G minor by Shostakovich (featuring Craig Sheppard on piano).
The fresh ingredient: British cellist Paul Watkins, who recently replaced longtime ESQ cellist David Finckel in the first change in the ensemble’s lineup in 34 years.
Talking by phone last week from Westchester County, N.Y., where he and his American wife and children now live, Watkins admitted to feeling both privileged and a little daunted at being Finckel’s successor: “For my money, he’s one of the top quartet cellists that have ever been around. … He really sets the standard — which of course means his shoes are large ones to fill.”
Watkins, 43, has a busy performing career as a recitalist, concert soloist, principal conductor of the English Chamber Orchestra and recording artist on Britain’s Chandos label. Until recently he was a cellist with London’s Nash Ensemble, but he resigned from that position in order to join ESQ.
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What’s it like playing with three musicians who’ve been together more than 30 years?
There’s a learning curve, Watkins admits, but he’s grown increasingly comfortable with it in the four months since joining the quartet: “I’ve become more and more confident at reading their body language — and their sort of ‘telepathic’ language, as well, for want of a better word.”
The quartet was on Watkins’ radar from the time he was in his teens. (“Like many other musicians and music lovers, I fell in love with their Bartók cycle,” he says.) His personal contact with the quartet came through his wife, Jennifer, the daughter of violinist Jaime Laredo and the late pianist Ruth Laredo. Those connections led to his meeting a lot of American chamber musicians, including Emerson violist Lawrence Dutton and violinist Philip Setzer.
It gives Watkins special pleasure that ESQ has dipped into the British chamber repertoire with performances this summer of Britten’s second and third string quartets. He also hopes to steer them toward the string-quartet music of British composer Michael Tippett, rarely heard in the U.S.
“Part of the reason is that it’s bloody difficult,” he explains. “That’s part of my agenda, which maybe the other three — ha ha! — don’t know about yet. But they’re going to read about it in The Seattle Times. I really do want to introduce them to the Tippett quartets.”
The quartet’s first order of business, however, he says, is to settle down as “an ensemble with a changed dynamic in it, and redo some of the great repertoire. One of the big reasons for me joining the quartet was to do the Beethoven quartets, and the Schubert and Mozart and some Haydn.”
Tuesday’s program looks richly promising. Mozart’s String Quartet No. 16 (one of his “Haydn” quartets, where he starts experimenting with the form) is followed by Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 6, written when the composer was anguished over the death of his sister Fanny.
“You sense that particularly in the slow movement,” Watkins says of the Mendelssohn work. “Although it’s incredibly beautiful, it’s also extremely pained.”
Closing the concert is the Shostakovich quintet, one of the Russian composer’s earliest chamber masterpieces. Sheppard, whose connection with ESQ violinist Eugene Drucker goes back to 1968 when they were students together at Tanglewood, has played piano quintets with ESQ twice before. Chatting by phone last week, Sheppard said joining ESQ onstage is “the easiest thing in the world … like fitting into a glove or something.”
This should be fine music-making.
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org