An Interview with Philip Setzer and Paul Watkins
By John Sherer
I had the pleasure of speaking with violinist Philip Setzer and cellist Paul Watkins, both of the Emerson String Quartet, in anticipation of the group’s three concerts at CMS in spring 2023. In this, their last New York series, the Quartet (which also includes violinist Eugene Drucker and violist Lawrence Dutton) will perform selections from their vast repertoire, their definitive recordings of which have duly made them famous.
For context, it should be mentioned that the Emerson String Quartet has long enjoyed a special relationship with CMS. They have played many times on the stage of Alice Tully Hall since their first CMS appearance in 1982, and CMS Co-Artistic Director David Finckel was the Quartet’s cellist from 1979 to 2013.
Throughout our conversation I was struck by their camaraderie, wit, and good humor: qualities that their serious-looking press photos often belie. We spoke at the end of January; our edited conversation follows.
John Sherer: You’ve been playing many concerts around the world for the Emerson’s final full season. What informed the repertoire choices for those concerts, particularly the three with CMS this spring?
Paul Watkins: David had some input, didn’t he?
Philip Setzer: I came up with some ideas, because I generally do the programs for the Quartet. David looked at them and gave his thoughts about them. I showed it, of course, to the other three, and everybody had some input. The idea was that these three concerts would basically highlight our favorite repertoire, let’s put it that way. [Laughs] There are so many pieces we love that are not on these three programs. So it was kind of hard, like choosing your favorite friends for a very small party.
But there are a couple of more personal things in there. The Beethoven Opus 59, No. 2, was the first Beethoven quartet that we performed as the Emerson. We had studied the Opus 132 at Juilliard and performed that, but we weren’t called the Emerson Quartet at that point. David wasn’t in the Quartet yet, but 59/2 we did with Eric [Wilson, the group’s first cellist]. We thought it would be nice to go back and play that near the end, since it was one of our pieces that was right at the beginning. The other piece, which was the absolute first piece that Gene and I performed together as a student quartet, was Bartók 2. It’s always been a favorite of ours, not just because it was our first our first date, as it were, [laughs] but it’s just a piece that we’ve always felt very close to and wanted to have on our program.
And then we tried to have things that were highlights in our career—recording highlights like Shostakovich. We definitely wanted to have something from the New Viennese School; we couldn’t fit everything, but we have the [Webern] Bagatelles. We also wanted to premiere something, to have a new piece written for this series.
PW: Yes, so we have the new work by Sarah Kirkland Snider.
PS: We could have spread things out, with the usual format of having an early classical piece and a modern piece and a Romantic piece on each program. But over the years, we’ve gone away from doing the expected thing. We like to have a program that instead stays in one century or in one style, and maybe goes chronologically through that. We were, I think, one of the first groups to do it that way; I never saw anybody else, for example, play the Beethoven cycle chronologically. And we were told in the beginning that it wouldn’t work. Actually, after our opening concert of the first three Opus 18s, the New York Times critic—I don’t remember who it was—said, “Well, it’s all good and fine. But you know, if they play the rest of the cycle like this, it’s not going to be successful.” Couldn’t they have waited and heard the whole cycle before they said that? [Laughs] But anyway, it was fine.
So those three programs take you through chronologically, starting with Purcell, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven; and then the Romantic with Mendelssohn, Brahms, and Dvořák; and then the last one is not strictly chronological within the program—we couldn’t quite do that—but it has Ravel, which is 1901, right at the beginning of 20th century, and Bartók and the Bagatelles in between. After intermission is Sarah’s piece, and then we end with the Shostakovich 12. You think of Shostakovich being back in the early part of the 20th century, but this piece was written in 1968, toward the end of his life.
We’ve always liked to do this kind of “journey” programming; if someone comes to only one of these concerts, they’re not going to get the whole feel of it.
JS: I love that each program is cohesive, rather than a smorgasbord. You mentioned the piece by Sarah Kirkland Snider; I wondered if you could say a little bit about how commissioning has been part of the Emerson Quartet’s legacy.
PW: From my perspective, coming into the Quartet later on in its life, the commissioning policy is quite similar, in fact, to the group that I used to play in, the National Ensemble of London. Commissioning was a very important part of both ensembles’ ethos. And even since I’ve been in the Quartet, I’ve played a few new pieces: one by Mark-Anthony Turnage, one by Lowell Liebermann. There was Richard Wernick—
PS: Who wrote us a piece on his own doing; that wasn’t even a commission.
PW: And now Sarah Kirkland Snider. I happen to know her anyway because she came to my attention through my role as Artistic Director of the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival in Michigan. After I listened to a lot of her music and found it really, really compelling, we invited her to become composer-in-residence.
PS: What year was that? I remember I was there.
PW: The year before the pandemic, actually. 2019. We had a lot of her pieces done. Eighth Blackbird did some of her pieces; I played her solo cello piece, which I really loved working on.
PS: Yeah, I liked that piece.
PW: The commission from Music Accord was sort of a retirement gift to the Quartet; they gifted us this commission of a 10-minute work. We looked at a few composers, but Sarah’s name rose very quickly to the top.
I think many string quartets would say—possibly with the exception of the Kronos Quartet—that when it comes to contemporary music, the four members’ tastes can differ quite a lot, and we’ve had that experience in the past, even with the pieces that I’ve played in the Quartet. But on this occasion, everybody was on the same page about Sarah—that her music is very rich and interesting and well written for strings. So we’re really excited to see what it’s like.
PS: Yes, it’s going to be finished, I think, at the beginning of March.
PW: I’d be interested to know: what’s the first commission that the Quartet did?
PS: The history, as I remember it, is this. When we won the Naumburg Chamber Competition in 1978, part of the prize was a commission. We chose Mario Davidovsky, who wrote his Fourth Quartet for us. We liked it very much and recorded it, I think, for Smithsonian Records back in the early days. As we went along, we did some recordings of new, or at least relatively recent, pieces for New World Records before we were with Deutsche Grammophon. We did Gunther Schuller’s Second Quartet, Andrew Imbrie’s Fourth Quartet, and a piece by Arthur Shepherd that Betsy Norden sang with us.
The one with Gunther Schuller was a very important recording to do, and we worked a lot with him on that; his Second Quartet is still, to this day, the most difficult piece I’ve ever played. It was just incredibly hard. We played it for him before we recorded it, and he said, “Guys, it’s not ready. Let’s cancel the recording sessions next week; I’ll come down on my own dime once a month, and we’ll spend a day working on it.” So he flew down from Boston every month for maybe six months. We learned so much about how to play and hear difficult contemporary music. It was a 12-tone piece, sort of a combination of 12-tone and modern jazz chords. This was a very experimental work for him, too, and he said he needed time to make sure it was sounding the way he wanted.
I remember him, for instance, tuning up a chord where we were all playing double stops. It sounded very dissonant, and I didn’t really understand the harmony. I knew it was leading to the next chord, but it didn’t make any sense to me. I even said, “Gunther, I don’t understand this chord.” And he said, “That’s because it’s out of tune.”
PS: And I said, “Okay, help us tune it.” He went from the bottom and fixed this interval and that interval. He had incredible ears. He and Pierre Boulez are the two people I worked with in my life who had that kind of ear for really complicated modern music. He tuned the chord and then said, “Okay, add this; now add the second violin note—nope, too low, come up a little bit. That’s good.” He got that part exactly how he wanted it, then added the first violin part. And he said, “A little bit lower, a little bit lower. A little bit higher, cello. There it is! There it is! Now just play that chord.” It was a revelation. It’s like he got us to go inside his brain and actually hear it. It was a tremendous amount of work, but then when we got to the recording session—which I thought was going to be impossible because he’d been so picky—we finished before lunch. We learned a lot from that. We realized this is not only for contemporary music; this is how you prepare for anything, especially for recordings.
JS: I’ve been wondering about the process of preparing for concerts like the ones leading up to your final concert in the fall. What’s it like to rehearse music that you’ve played many times before, knowing that public performances as a group will soon come to a close?
PW: That’s a good question.
PS: Yeah, what’s it like Paul?
PW: [Laughs] Well, to be frank, we’re doing a lot of concerts. We’re not doing much rehearsal. It reminds me of a story of the Budapest Quartet. When they invited Alexander Schneider to come back after he’d left for a period, he said, “Yes, I will come back, but only on the condition that we never rehearse again!” He’d been through that intensive process, and I imagine he just wasn’t interested. Now, it’s not that we’re not interested in rehearsing, of course, but in the nearly ten years that I’ve been in the group, we’ve worked on all of these pieces, apart from the Snider, a lot. So there’s already a lot of tradition. When I came into the Quartet, I spent a lot of time listening to their recordings—
PS: Much more time than any of us has listened to them!
PW: I don’t know about that! Maybe not since you edited them, anyway.
PW: I feel that I’ve tried, as well as bringing my own perspective to the Quartet, to carry on the tradition, not to rock the boat too much. It’s like someone coming into the Berlin Philharmonic or or the Vienna Phil or the Concertgebouw Orchestra. When ensembles already have a tradition, you have to absorb that. So a short answer to your question is that we aren’t rehearsing for many, many hours now, but when we do rehearse, I think it’s fair to say that none of us, perhaps yet, is getting sentimental about the process. We’re still—and this is something that I think the Emerson Quartet is rightly famous for amongst musical insiders and friends of ours—a kind of no-nonsense ensemble. We try and avoid drama, and without sounding pious about it, we focus on the music, we focus on the notes. That has not gone away at all, actually. I think, in our final 50 or so concerts before the Quartet disperses, there is still quite a lot to do. At the moment we’re carrying on as normal, aren’t we?
PS: The finish line is still out there.
PW: Still distant, yeah.
PS: Sometimes I wish it were closer. Sometimes I wish were further away.
PW: Another little story I could share which might be interesting: as you speak to us, we’ve just played, in Florida, the same program of Haydn, Mendelssohn, and Beethoven’s Opus 59, No. 2, three times in a row in the space of three days. On every concert day, we’ll touch up little aspects of the program, or we’ll talk about it in the car, or there’ll be a little bit of adjusting backstage with one or two members of the group. We’re not doing intense microsurgery in terms of rehearsing, but the performance of those three pieces will change, we hope, and did change dramatically from night to night. By the time we got to the concert last night, I personally felt that we did a really, really good performance of Opus 59, No. 2. We don’t always have to talk to each other; we’re trying to listen to each other when we perform. I’m going to miss that, actually.
PS: I’m going to miss that, too. I mean, it’s funny talking about the rehearsal process, because that’s—as opposed to what Sasha Schneider said—I think that’s what I’m going to miss more: the process of working it out more than the performing. That may not be true for everybody in the group, but we’ve done so many performances in 47 years. I really don’t need to get worried about a performance and go out there and put myself and the rest of the group (and the music!) on the line too much more. [Laughs] I think I’ve done what I could imagine doing as a performer. It’s not as if I feel like, “Oh, it’s a shame, I wish we could have done this or that.” We did it, we did a lot. I’m certainly not going to miss the traveling, which I used to love, but it’s not so much fun anymore.
But what I will miss: I really do enjoy, and I think all of us enjoy, the rehearsal process, even with pieces that we’ve done a lot. Sometimes one of us hears a recorded performance we’ve done and says, “You know, I was listening to our performance from wherever, and in this place where we take time, it just doesn’t sound good.” And we’ll say, “Okay, let’s work on it.” I will miss that.
The process of rehearsing in this quartet for over 45 years has changed. I mean, in the beginning, it was difficult. We hadn’t figured out how to play in tune yet. Then when David joined, there was a different set of priorities that took time to settle in. But it was the same four people for 34 years, from the time that David joined until he left, and after a while we learned what we were doing.
The recording process was very helpful for us to really hear what we sounded like, because if you’re just performing, or even hearing recordings of performances, it’s not the same as going in and saying, “Now we have to make a recording of some great work of art, and this is going to be our recording. Forever.” That’s a lot more pressure than making a decision about a particular performance and knowing you can change it. It’s like working on a film rather than a stage production. It meant taking things apart, even pieces we knew and had performed countless times. We had to make changes due to having microphones up close instead of out in the hall. We learned over the years.
Paul, in the meantime, was making a lot of recordings, mostly in Britain with the Nash Ensemble, and as a soloist and conductor. When he joined almost ten years ago, we had a pretty good idea of what needed to be done, even if it was a piece that we knew really well and he hadn’t played. It wasn’t like, “Gee, how do we put this together?” [Laughs] It was more like, “Let’s just get to work.” Sometimes it would be funny because there’d be something Paul would do that David had never done in 34 years. We’d be going along with everything feeling good, and all of a sudden Paul would play something that would have us saying, “Wow, that’s really interesting,” or “Wow, that’s really beautiful,” or—
PW: I’m not so sure—
PS: Or, “David used to do this!”
PW: Yeah, yeah! More like that!
PS: Then Paul would say, “Okay, let me try it.” More often than not he’d come back with, “I think I like my way better!” And we’d say, “Good, good. Just do it!”
JS: I wanted to ask you, Paul, about your approach to joining an ensemble with such an established history.
PW: For the first few years after I joined the Quartet, I didn’t have a lot of access to David’s cello parts. Eventually he sent all his parts to the library at Stony Brook University, where the Quartet has been in residence.
PS: It was either there or the recycling bin, right? [Laughs]
PW: Yes, one of the two. Finally, I realized that if I went to the library when I was visiting Stony Brook, there was a shelf behind the counter with all of David’s parts. As the repertoire mounted up and there were more pieces I had to learn, it was very useful to go and look at David’s parts and at least copy the bowings and some of the fingerings, so that we were up and running on the first rehearsal. Then after a few rehearsals, I could think, well, maybe this doesn’t suit me so well, this fingering, or perhaps we could try something different here. But that made it possible for us to learn even more pieces in the middle period of my being in the Quartet. So thanks, David!
PS: One other thing about learning repertoire. It seems obvious, but I’ll say it anyway: the fact that Gene and I have switched on the violin parts ever since our student years has enabled us to do a lot more repertoire than either of us could have done if we were playing first violin all the time. Not that the second violin part isn’t just as important to play well, but honestly, it’s not as challenging or virtuosic as the first violin.
Also, we both love playing second violin. Both of our fathers played second violin in string quartets. My dad was in the Cleveland Orchestra—my mother also—but he played in a quartet called the Symphonia Quartet as the second violinist. He was Assistant Principal Second Violin in the Cleveland Orchestra for many years. Gene’s father was in the Met Opera Orchestra, but before that, he was playing in the Busch String Quartet when they got out of Germany. So we both had a special feeling for, as they call it, the second fiddle part. [Laughs]
I counted up for our 40th anniversary as many pieces as I could find that we had done. Since then we’ve done more, and it’s probably close to 300 works altogether. A good 30 or 35 were new pieces—not just contemporary, but pieces that were written for us. Bill Bolcom wrote a piano quintet for us. Thomas Adès, Pierre Jalbert, George Tsontakis, Paul Epstein, John Harbison, Joan Tower, Ellen Zwilich, the list goes on. I’m sure I’m leaving many out. It’s a long list of wonderful composers, some of whom were not known yet, so it was kind of an experiment for them and for us.
JS: Phil, how would you describe the changes in the landscape for emerging ensembles since the Emerson started out?
PS: I get asked this question a lot—by organizations like CMS, by the press, and by students and young quartets that we’re mentoring.
JS: If you’re tired of answering it, we can skip it!
PS: No, no, I’m not. It’s a very important question, and it’s complicated for a number of reasons. First of all, when we were starting out, there were very few quartets trying to do what we ended up doing. There were the great quartets that came before us—going back two “generations” to the Budapest Quartet and their influence on both the Guarneri and the Juilliard, and then the influence of those groups on us directly. We heard those two a lot, and then later, the Cleveland and Tokyo. Occasionally, someone would come over from Europe—the Amadeus, or later, the Borodin Quartet. There were some young quartets, but nothing compared to now. I mean, it’s incredible how many young groups there are, and everybody wants to do what we’ve had the good fortune to do.
On the other hand, there weren’t as many opportunities. There was basically the Naumburg Competition in those days. There were some that were just starting out west, but there weren’t many options. Maybe Munich started to do something along the way. I don’t think there was anything in London yet.
PW: No, the Portsmouth Competition started in the 80s, I think.
PS: Yeah, a number of things started then. Fischoff. Maybe Banff was starting around that time. But there weren’t all these opportunities like there are now. Many more young quartets are out there, but there’s also a competition pretty much every week. Some of them are virtual now; that started during the pandemic, but it’s continued so people don’t have to pay a lot of money to travel to Vienna or some place to play in a competition. It’s a very different picture.
Honestly, and I don’t mean this to be in any way discouraging, but there are so many talented young musicians now. There’s all this talk about classical music disappearing and so on, but the reality is that there are probably more gifted young players in the world than ever before. And yeah, what are they all going to end up doing? Not everybody can have a solo career. Even if you go out and win a solo competition next Tuesday, somebody else is going to win one the following Tuesday and somebody else won one last Tuesday, so there’s got to be more than just winning a competition. It’s the same with the groups. I think that a lot of them will continue to survive; they may make some changes along the way, just like we did, especially in the beginning. Many won’t end up staying together for various reasons, perhaps because they find it’s just not sustainable.
Unfortunately, what I see with many students now is that they decide what they want to do when they’re in their second year of undergrad. They’ll say, “I want to play in a quartet, and I don’t want to play in an orchestra.” Or, “I want to be a soloist, I don’t want to play in a quartet.” Or they’re really geared to play in an orchestra, and they think, “If I’m going to be an orchestra player, that’s what I should concentrate on, I should practice the excerpts.” I’m sorry, but I don’t think that’s true. I grew up listening to the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell every week, and that orchestra was like a very large chamber group; he rehearsed them that way whether it was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony or a smaller Haydn symphony. He taught them how to listen. That’s the key to success for whatever anybody wants to do, whether you’re a soloist or a chamber musician or an orchestra player: how well do you listen? The only way to really learn that is to do all of those things. You have to be really proficient individually for a quartet to be successful. You have to keep practicing and performing your solo repertoire, not just working on quartets all the time. And that’s true for playing in an orchestra, too. Obviously, you have to win the audition by playing a concerto and excerpts, but I think a lot of a lot of orchestras now require you to sit down and play a string quartet with three members of the orchestra. I think that makes perfect sense.
So there are a lot of opportunities, schools, summer festivals, places where students can go. I would recommend always that they play chamber music, because that’s the absolutely the best way to learn how to listen. You can’t play chamber music if you’re not listening. I would say—Paul, correct me if I’m wrong—we do look at each other when we’re performing, but for the most part, we could play almost the whole piece without looking at each other, even turned away from each other, because so much of it has to do with listening.
JS: The other day I saw an ad for the new box set of the Emerson’s recordings on Deutsche Grammophon. 55 CDs, it’s mind-boggling. It occurred to me that the Emerson is one of those rare ensembles with a career so illustrious that it could easily be mythologized—I mean that less in the sense of falsified than idealized. So I’m wondering: are there any myths about the Emerson, or about working in a string quartet more generally, that you would like to dispel?
PS: That’s a whole interview right there, right?
PW: Goodness me. Well, first of all, I would say that—maybe not amongst the general public, but amongst musicians, at least—there’s sometimes a myth that very long-established quartets evolve to a place where they hate each other, they don’t talk to each other, they’re very, you know, short with each other.
PS: What do you mean by that, Paul?
PW: Shut up, Phil!
PW: This goes back to a movie that’s out at the moment, Tár. In some ways it’s very modern—with surrealism, dream sequences, you’re not quite sure what’s real and what’s not, there’s a gay woman as the head of the Berlin Phil; it’s all bang-up-to-date—but it mythologizes the power and the supposedly aggressive, rude, uncompromising nature of the “great artists.” And it seems the general public still likes that, or they imagine that we’re all thinking great thoughts all the time. But we’re really not. [Laughs] We’re actually, you know, trying to get to the venue at the same time as each other without too many flights. There’s a lot of practicality involved.
I’m reminded of something from the life one of the most legendary violinists who embodied everything that Phil was just talking about: Joseph Joachim, Brahms’s friend and the dedicatee of Brahms’s Violin Concerto, who led the famous Joachim String Quartet (which was hugely influential before the era of recorded sound). This was a guy who could easily be a myth, but if you read his letters, there are some wonderfully practical sequences about which steamer are they going to get from Calais to Dover that might avoid the fog so they could make the next train to Victoria Station? And then which London inn are they going to stay in that isn’t too full of prostitutes before they go up to do a concert in Manchester? And this is all at the end of the 19th century. There’s a mythology about the rarefied life on the road for classical musicians, which is absolutely not true. We all eat at a Jack in the Box if that’s the only place within walking distance, just like anybody else. That goes for the Emerson String Quartet as well as for any young string quartet just starting out on their careers.
PS: Certainly there have been—not just string quartets, but any group that’s been written and talked about a lot like the Beatles—groups that were unbelievably iconic, but didn’t last very long, despite all their amazing accomplishments in a short period of time. I think that we’ve been extremely lucky in a lot of ways. We came along at the right time for recordings when the digital recording era started and the CD was invented; we couldn’t record quickly enough. Now there’s very little of an industry for classical recordings, certainly for chamber music. Even with orchestras: generally they record the two concerts, sometimes three, of the same program, and they record the dress rehearsal. From those few versions of it, they can decide if it was a really great performance worth editing together to make a live recording, or they can just leave it in the archive and see what happens next week. But the recording history of the Emerson Quartet is something I doubt, sadly, will happen again. We were extremely lucky.
The other way that we’ve been incredibly lucky is that we have gotten along. Sure, we each have our moments; you can’t spend this amount of time with anybody and not have an argument once in a while. If you can, then there’s something missing in that relationship. As Paul said, we take the music very seriously, but we don’t let each other take himself too seriously. Humor has gotten us through a lot.
The other thing that people might find interesting—I mention this often when I’m asked how we function. It seems very simple, but it’s extremely important. I don’t remember whether we had this in place before David joined, because we didn’t have to make that many decisions in the beginning; we would take whatever we could get at first. As we went along, we had more and more decisions to discuss and vote on. We made an agreement amongst the four of us: that every decision has to be unanimous. In other words, it’s not a democracy. I remember David saying, “If I’m one of three people who really want to do something and the fourth doesn’t want to, I no longer don’t want to do it.” One person is going to be unhappy, whether it’s a concert, an interview like this, a recording, repertoire, collaborating with a particular person, or whatever it is. If one of us absolutely doesn’t want to do something, end of discussion. We don’t harbor ill feelings toward that person, it’s just dropped. It’s gone. You hit the delete button. I think that agreement and keeping our senses of humor are two things that have helped us, as well as the respect we have for each other.
Another thing David said one time is that we all worship the same musical gods. That goes for composers and performers, and the influence that the great performers have had on us. For me, that’s not only the influence of violinists, but singers, pianists, oboists, anybody. And not just classical music, either—I can listen to Billie Holiday and get an idea from the way she would sing a line that I might use in a piece by Schubert.
All of those things together have been very important. I don’t know how other groups work; it would be interesting to ask them and do a study.
JS: A colleague was telling me recently that the Guarneri Quartet never spent any time together outside of rehearsal and performance. At least, this is what they claimed; maybe it’s exaggerated.
PS: I think many groups do that to some extent, although I know Michael [Tree] and Arnold [Steinhardt] played a lot of tennis with each other. [Laughs] We probably do socialize more than some other groups. If we’re on the road and we have a night free, we’ll often go out; even if it’s not all four of us, at least a couple of us will. We’re not trying to avoid each other, though we try not to be right next to each other. That’s how we met the Alban Berg Quartet: we got put in four corners of a hotel, and then we each immediately started hearing somebody practicing in the next room. We went down to the desk to find out what was going on, and within a few minutes, there were eight of us down there, the Alban Berg Quartet and the Emerson Quartet. They had put us two-by-two, it was really funny.
PW: There’s one myth that was exploded for me because I was brought up learning about the life of string quartets through the film made about the Guarneri Quartet called High Fidelity. There were a lot of shots of them having discussions on airplanes, sitting next to each other. In my experience in ten years with the Emerson Quartet, we have never been anywhere near each other on a plane, unless something’s gone terribly wrong with the reservations. [Laughs] When we’re on a plane, we’re in our own bubbles. I think that keeps us sane to moderately sane.
PS: I’m not saying this to paint a rosy picture: we honestly do have a good time for the most part. Otherwise, I wouldn’t do it. I would teach or something; I wouldn’t have done it for this long if it was miserable on a personal level. It just it’s not worth it.
JS: It’s supposed to be fun, right? Playing music.
PS: Yeah, life’s too short. Gene and I are now in our early 70s. And you know, we’ve had a good time. It’s been a good ride. Some of it’s been a struggle, and certainly a challenge, but my memories of it carry a lot of laughter.
JS: That’s wonderful to hear. Thank you both, it was a great honor to talk to you. Like so many people, I’ve heard the Emerson recordings over the years—
PW: Me too!
JS: I have a vivid memory from when I was in college. I was leaving a Chicago Symphony concert late at night and got a cab home. The driver asked, “What were you hearing?” I told him it was a Shostakovich symphony, and he said, “Oh, let me let me play you something,” and put on Shostakovich’s Eighth Quartet. I didn’t really know that piece at the time, but I remember being swept away by it. I asked, “Who is that playing?” He said, “The Emerson String Quartet.” When I asked him if he was a musician himself, he said, “No, I just like music.” Your work has reached many more people than you know and has touched so many lives.
PS: That’s one of the things that’s happening now: a lot of people are coming up and saying, “I’ve listened to your recordings.” Sometimes you feel like you did all that work and it’s in a void somewhere, and you wonder if people actually hear it. So it’s very nice to hear, and to know that people have enjoyed it means a lot.
PW: One last little anecdote: I can remember exactly where I was when I first listened to the Emerson’s box set of the Bartók string quartets. It must have been between 1991 and 1993 because I was in my first car that had a CD player. I started listening to the set as I was driving to one of my first professional solo recording sessions; I was making a CD of the Britten Solo Cello Suites. I had a 45-minute drive to the recording studio every day out in Wales, and I put on the Bartók quartets as I was breaking the speed limit on a rural Welsh road. I’ll never forget hearing this incredible recording.
PS: Your car wasn’t noisy, was it?
PW: Well, it was quite noisy. I didn’t hear much. The volume didn’t go up that high. [Laughs] But yeah, the Emerson Quartet influenced my own recording. When I got to the sessions, I kept asking them to move the microphone closer so I could get that immediacy of sound, which was not so much a British aesthetic in recordings in the 90s. It’s amazing how it all happens: you see these people on their Deutsche Grammophon CD cover, and then 30 years later, you’re playing chamber music with them. It’s really weird. [Laughs]
PS: I remember when we were in the audition with you, Paul. At some point, you stopped and said, “Wow, I’m playing Bartók with the Emerson Quartet.” And I think I said, “So am I!” [Laughs]
We’ve been very lucky to have Mr. Watkins join us. To replace David was no easy thing, of course. I recall asking David, “You know us better than anybody, and you know the cellists out there. Who would be your first choice if we could get them?” He said, “My first choice would be Paul Watkins, but you’ll never get him.” So David was wrong about that!
John Sherer is Editorial Manager at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.