Since its beginning, the Stony Brook University music department has welcomed a wide range of big names as their artists in residence. World renowned soloists such as celebrated flutist Carol Wincenc and members of widely recognized instrumental ensembles have been placed as head faculty members, giving students the ability to work side by side with great and experienced masters.
The department’s featured ensemble in residence has been the Emerson String Quartet since 2002. The Quartet is a New York City-based group that has won numerous awards for their recordings, including nine Grammys and the Avery Fisher Prize. They have also been recognized as one of today’s most distinguished string ensembles.
The Emerson String Quartet’s music and performances have been major contributing factors to their success but there is one other feature that separates them from other ensembles: all of their achievements as a group have been steadily accomplished over a span of about thirty-six years.
And since the beginning of those three and a half decades, the four musicians have never separated from the group. The members- Eugene Drucker, Philip Setzer (violinists), Lawrence Dutton (violist ), and David Finckel (cellist )- have remained together throughout Emerson’s entire career.
However, as of this year, Finckel has parted from the group. Much like the other Emerson members, the cellist has embarked on many other musical projects. Among the several he is working on, he is doing collaborations with his wife, pianist Wu Han, as well as with other musicians. He and Han have also founded various summer workshops and they are making their own record label, ArtistLed.
The Emerson String Quartet’s last performance with Finckel was May 11 in Washington D.C. Dutton recalled knowing that their longtime cellist and friend was no longer going to be part of the group and that it was emotional for them. “But we were ok with it,” he said.
Then of course, the search for a new cellist had to begin. The quartet was thankfully given many options to choose from in selecting their new cellist. One of these cellists, however, had Dutton pretty decided on the matter.
About two years ago, Dutton was given the opportunity to play with Paul Watkins, an often sought out cellist and conductor from England. Watkins’ playing and his passion for music impressed the violist quite a bit. “He has a gorgeous sound and great musicianship,” Dutton said. “The way he can create beauty astounds me.”
Dutton also recalled telling his wife when Finckel was departing the group that “This is the guy we need!”
Watkins seemed just as elated about the idea of him joining the group. “[When I played with him two years ago,] we were playing in piano quartets with Alex Kerr in Bloomington, Toronto, and Montreal” he said. They played Haydn, Bartok and Beethoven together, and he described it as “incredible and exhilarating.”
He also met Setzer in a festival in California during the same year. Having played with two members of the Emerson String Quartet, Watkins had a very good idea of what the string ensemble was like. “They were dynamic, committed, and unpretentious” he said, “direct from the heart”.
“You can’t go wrong [with that].” He said.
One has to wonder what it is like to be a new member in an established group of over thirty years. When asked if he felt like he had to adjust to certain aspects of the string ensemble, he merely chuckled and said, “Well, it’s my job to anticipate things.” He also said that although there were things to get used to, he felt very at ease with the three other members of the ensemble.
The ensemble’s next performance on campus is Thursday, Oct. 17. This is one of Emerson String Quartet’s many performances with Watkins since he was added to the group six months ago.
“I am so excited about the new formation of our quartet,” Dutton said. “I think we will stay together for a long time.”
Watkins also says that he is looking forward to his years with the string quartet, and that he is also looking forward to working with the music students at Stony Brook University.