Emerson Quartet announces sea change

A fixture on the American classical music scene announced a major change this week: the Emerson Quartet, a group that’s played together for 34 years, is switching cellists. David Finckel, 60, is leaving, he announced in a statement, to pursue his own artistic endeavors at the end of the 2012-13 season.

He will be replaced by the Welsh cellist Paul Watkins, 42, a virtuosic player who is also expanding his career as a conductor, heading the English Chamber Orchestra and pursuing a range of guest-conducting gigs.

Finckel has been multi-tasking so much for so long that it’s almost surprising that he wants a change at this late date. Together with his wife, the pianist Wu Han, he founded and directs the festival Music@Menlo in California, and runs New York’s Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. They also have their own recording label, ArtistLed, and concertize independently. This year, Musical America named them, jointly, their Musicians of the Year.

The Emerson Quartet is arguably the leading string quartet in America, with a host of honors (including nine Grammys), a reputation as exciting and trailblazing music makers, and a string of perpetually sold out concert appearances in Washington. If their star has dimmed in recent years as they settled down in the upper reaches of the performing pantheon, it certainly wasn’t because of Finckel, who has always seemed a revitalizing force in the group. Now that role will fall to Watkins, who will bring new blood and a slightly different accent to an eminently American group.

The current configuration of the Emerson has one more season to go. The quartet’s next Washington performance — with Wu Han — is at Strathmore on Wednesday night.

Above: Paul Watkins, who will take over as the Emerson Quartet’s cellist in the fall of 2013 season, plays the final movement of Poulenc’s cello sonata in a 1999 recording.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.

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