This is turning into a banner year for resignations, from Pope Benedict XVI’s to Channel 2 sports legend Ed Kilgore’s.
In the passionate classical music world, the resignation of the year could turn out to be the departure of cellist David Finckel from the Emerson String Quartet.
Finckel is one of the world’s top cellists, and the Emerson has grown to be one of the world’s great quartets. The group, which also includes violinists Philip Setzer and Eugene Drucker and violist Lawrence Dutton, has been together with no personnel changes since 1979. The musicians have performed in Buffalo many times over the years, on the Buffalo Chamber Music Society’s series and the prestigious Slee Beethoven Quartet Cycle.
Finckel gives his second last performance with the Emerson Quartet in Buffalo, on Tuesday. The concert falls between an appearance at Carnegie Hall on Saturday and the four musicians’ final concert together, at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., on May 11.
Talking to Finckel on the phone, you sense a bittersweet joy in the transition.
He admits he’ll miss the quartet music, especially the very moving Beethoven quartets. “That literature, that quartet literature is, of course, incomparable,” he says.
But he is looking forward to leading a life more open to other adventure. Finckel is married to pianist Wu Han, and they keep up an extensive concert schedule. They also play trio concerts with Setzer, and those concerts will continue. Finckel will also be making more solo appearances.
“I am fortunate that being a cellist, I have a lot of great, great solo literature,” he said. “I’m not going to be starving for music.”
He takes happiness, too, in the fact that the quartet will go on with his successor, British cellist Paul Watkins.
There was a time, Finckel explains, when the musicians of the Emerson had planned on setting a date when they would disband. “We had discussed fixing a time to quit, trying to make a decision. But it was too depressing a subject,” he said. “Things have gone so well, and were so positive, that it didn’t feel very natural for us to talk about ending it all, while we’re still going strong – even when we thought it was a prudent thing to do,” he says. The decision to go on with a personnel change was a joy for them all. “It turned out to be one of the healthiest and happiest things that has happened in our career.”
A ritual frequently surrounds the changing of the cello in a string quartet. It centers on the famous Schubert Quintet in C, which includes two cellos. At the last concert before the new cellist takes over, it is traditional for both cellists to join in the poignant piece.
“It’s the most natural way of doing it. It’s a beautiful way of doing it,” Finckel said. “The new cellist comes in in the guest spot, the second cello. But the second cello is really the bass, the bottom of the ensemble. When Paul comes in, he’ll be replacing me, I’ll be kicked upstairs in the viola range. And then I’m out and he’s left, holding the basement.”
The musicians are playing the Schubert in Washington. In Buffalo, they will play other pieces close to their hearts. Tuesday in the Mary Seaton Room of Kleinhans Music Hall, the evening begins with Mozart’s Quartet in D, K. 499 (the beautiful “Hoffmeister”); continues with the Lyric Suite of the turn-of-the-last-century Viennese composer Alban Berg; and ends with the String Quartet No. 9 in D Minor of Antonin Dvorak.
There is something fascinating about life in a string quartet – four people who, like the members of a rock band, are bound up for years on end with the music and with each other. The music written for string quartet is brooding, intimate and intricate. Composers from Mozart and Haydn through Beethoven, Brahms and beyond often used the form to express their innermost feelings.
The movie business acknowledged the drama surrounding string quartets with the recent drama “A Late Quartet.” It starred Christopher Walken and Philip Seymour Hoffman as members of a veteran string quartet struggling with artistic and personal conflicts.
Finckel has not seen the movie, but he plans to, and has heard all about it. He has a few strategies of his own for keeping things musically on an even keel, through all the ups and downs a longtime quartet can experience.
“I tend to keep going to the places that I know are tried and true sources of inspiration for me,” he said. “For example, I have certain recordings I can listen to that always get me excited about playing the cello.”
He also goes back to books he loves about musicians. “I tend to pick up composer biographies, get into their lives a little bit,” he said. “Just getting into the history of Bach and his times, and learning more about him and the depth of his music, has been a tremendous inspirational experience. You realize no matter how much music you know, there’s always more to learn, about composers and their worlds and their work.”
What: The Emerson String Quartet, presented by the Buffalo Chamber Music Society
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Kleinhans Music Hall’s Mary Seaton Room