Chamber Music Northwest Interview: Emerson String Quartet cellist Paul Watkins 

Venerable ensemble’s new member tells how he snagged chamber music’s most coveted job opening — and gives the scoop on a fascinating upcoming recording.

By ALICE HARDESTY

Editor’s note: The renowned Emerson Quartet just completed the latest of its frequent appearances at Chamber Music Northwest with a pair of concerts last weekend. While they were in Portland, ArtsWatch’s Alice Hardesty caught up with the distinguished foursome’s new cellist, Paul Watkins, who, after last year’s CMNW, joined violist Larry Dutton and violinists Philip Setzer and Eugene Drucker, replacing founding cellist David Finckel — the first personnel change in the ensemble’s award-studded 34-year history.

Paul Watkins. Photo: Lisa Mazzucco

Paul Watkins. Photo: Lisa Mazzucco

 

OAW: Welcome to Portland, Paul. Thank you very much for your time. What led you to decide to join a string quartet, and specifically this string quartet, the Emerson?

PW: It had a lot to do with my musical friendship with Larry Dutton. I was lucky enough to be able to play with him at chamber music festivals in ad hoc groups.

OAW: But you had played with the Emerson before, hadn’t you?

PW: No, I never had. Once, a number of years ago, David Finckel was temporarily unavailable and they called me looking for a substitute. Unfortunately, I wasn’t free at the time. But I was really kicking myself because I wanted to do that very much. Years later I ended up playing some piano quartets with Menahem Pressler and Larry Dutton happened to be the violist.

OAW: That must’ve been fun!

PW: Yes, we had a great time. And a year or so later I was invited by David and Wu Han to play at their festival, Music@Menlo, and I played some Brahms quintets with Philip Setzer, but I hadn’t played with Gene at that time. Anyway, a phone call came from Larry on my birthday, January 4th, 2012. I thought, Oh finally, they’re going to ask me to play a Schubert quintet with them! But actually they told me that David was going to leave the quartet, which was top-secret at that time, and asked if I would I like to join.

OAW: Just like that!

PW: Yes, that’s was exactly how it was.

OAW: Not, “Would you like to audition”?

PW: No they didn’t use the A-word, because we were all grown-ups, we knew each other, and we had played together. It was going to be very delicate. Having a new person in a string quartet is tricky anyway, but particularly after these people had played together for 34 years! That kind of longevity is really unique in present-day string quartets.

I was kind of shocked. I put down the phone and talked to my wife. She is Jennifer Laredo, [renowned violinist] Jaime and [pianist] Ruth Laredo’s daughter, and an American citizen. I said, “Gosh you’ll never guess what happened!” We had been living happily in London for 20 years. We had just spent a substantial amount of money redecorating our house, our two girls were settled in school there, and my gut reaction was, I don’t need to pack up everything and move to New York. But Jennifer said, “Hang on a minute. Why don’t you think about it and at least go and play with them?” So within 24 hours I booked a flight to New York.

It all felt rather cloak-and-dagger. I booked into an anonymous kind of hotel with the idea that we were going to spend a weekend playing quartets just to see he how it felt. It was either going to work or it wouldn’t. There was no middle ground. So we started playing, and within ten minutes I felt, This is absolutely marvelous! After an hour or so we took a break and talked a little, and Phil said something like, “Well?” And I said, “Yep.” Gene happened to have a bottle of champagne in the fridge, and that really was that!

We were going to read some more the following day, but Larry had a minor car accident coming into the city. So we talked through the potential logistics, said goodbye, and I went off to the airport. We kept it very quiet because we wanted to make sure the transition was absolutely seamless.

OAW: Do you remember what quartet they started you with?

PW: I do, actually: we started with the first movement of Beethoven’s Opus 18 number 1. They had asked me to send them a list of the quartets I had already played. In the Nash Ensemble, where I’d played for 16 years, we had a very nice solid, unchanging quartet — wonderful musicians who are still in the group — and we had started trying quartets.

The Nash Ensemble actually was the main source of my initial reluctance. I was having such a great time playing with them that I just didn’t want to stop. We felt that we had the right kind of chemistry and blend, not just to play their traditional repertoire, but also to play real string quartets like a couple of Beethoven’s, the Ravel, and a couple of Shostakovich’s. They had also asked me to prepare some pieces that they had recently performed. We worked our way through some of these, including pretty much all of the Ravel. It was a very nice afternoon.

OAW: So now you are the youngest member of this august group. Do you get a lot of ribbing for that?

PW: Well, I get to carry the suitcases sometimes. I know there’s an age difference but I’ve been used to that for much of my working life because I was only 20 years old when I started professionally as first cello of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. When I started with the Nash Ensemble, most of the members were older than I was, but not so much in later years.

OAW: First cellist at age 20! You were very young and you must’ve been very good.

PW: I was very lucky. It was a good start. But these guys [the Emersons] have extraordinary energy. It’s just phenomenal! They’re poster boys for the fact that everybody in the U.S. seems to have at least 10 years on their counterparts in Europe.

Most of the ribbing I get is about my English English rather than their American English. We have lots of fun discovering all sorts of slang on both sides.

Watkins performed with the Emerson Quartet last weekend at Chamber Music Northwest.

Watkins performed with the Emerson Quartet last weekend at Chamber Music Northwest.

OAW: About the concert last night, which was just beautiful, why did you all pick such bleak music [Shostakovich’s String Quartet #15 and Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” quartet], full of despair and anguish — the death theme?

PW: Well, that’s a question we’re asked often in this past season because we’ve been looking intensely at the last five quartets of Shostakovich. Gene gave a talk yesterday evening about all of this and he was brilliant. But the joke is that the easiest series for a quartet to put together would be called “Death.” So many great composers turned to the string quartet later in life for practical as well as creative reasons. It’s a lot easier to write four staves of music than it is to write 40, as with symphonies, which tend to be the works of composers in their prime. As they aged, they pared down, like Benjamin Britten, who worked in the same time period as Shostakovich. Britten was very ill with heart disease, and his doctor had said, “You can’t write an opera in your condition!” But he went ahead and composed Death in Venice, which took enormous strength (in fact it eventually killed him). So his friends asked him, “Why not try four staves rather than 40?”

Thinking about last night’s program, on the surface it is bleak. I think also, the “Death and the Maiden” nickname has some responsibility for that. If that quartet wasn’t called “Death and the Maiden,” people might view it in a different way. It’s a very dramatic quartet — dramatic in a sort of Beethovenian sense. It’s motivic and cogently argued, but it has moments of incredible beauty and joy as well as anger. I don’t find it a bleak work.

OAW: No, I agree. I would think of it more as tragic. And maybe those tender moments are indicative of resolution or even a hint of an afterlife.

PW: Oh, definitely. Death comes to us all, after all. It’s something we all have in common, and yet people think about it very differently. It’s an engaging subject, and music gives us the opportunity to contemplate it without having to think about semantics.

Shostakovich, for example, is more specific in this last quartet. He calls movement #5, Funeral March. But after that, the very last movement is really weird. He’s quoting music that I think he was going to use in an opera that never came to pass — these kinds of rushing figures, the very fast violin solo and then the cello solo. And then the whole quartet at the very end, this kind of rustling sound — that’s music he had in mind for something else. But then there’s also incredible moments in a beautiful major key signifying peace and repose. It is demanding and it is bleak, but somehow it’s incredibly compelling. I think you can defend any work like this, even in the midst of a beautiful summer festival. That’s what music is all about.

Watkins performed with David Shifrin and the Emersons Sunday.

Watkins performed with David Shifrin and the Emersons Sunday.

OAW: I noticed you had a lot of solo parts in the Shostakovich. Can you comment on the differences and similarities of the cello’s part in those two very different pieces — the role of the cello in each?

PW: I think whatever I would say about the role of the cello in these two pieces is what the other three guys would say about the role of their instruments. Of course Shostakovich does have solo moments for all of the instruments in quartet #15. What he was doing in numbers 11, 12, 13, and 14 was dedicating each quartet to a member of the Beethoven Quartet [which premiered many of Shostakovich’s quartets]. For example, #13 features the viola and #14 features the cello. So he sees the quartet not just as a choral entity but for real individuals. Particularly in the 14th quartet, which is heavy in the cello,I can’t help thinking about the Shostakovich cello concertos, those old war horses.

OAW: Have you played them?

PW: I’ve played them, yes. And it feels like you’re playing one of those cello concertos when you’re playing quartet number 14. Not so much the 15th. That feels much more like you’re acting. You have your lines, particularly your solo lines or soliloquies, as if they’re characters, portraits of someone. The second movement is particularly weird. It starts with these electric shocks for each instrument [demonstrates vocally], which are horrendous, like they’re meant to evoke some kind of treatment he was given.

OAW: Yes, I’ve seen them described as shrieks.

PW: Right, they are shrieks. I feel like they represent some kind of medical procedure in some horrible Soviet hospital. Then, once that’s finished, the cello comes in with a very gruff statement, which according to Phil, who has read very widely on Shostakovich and his time, is meant to be an imitation of the way Stalin spoke [demonstrates vocally with a sort of growl].

OAW: Really?

PW: Yes. He was a fairly unsophisticated man from the countryside with a strong regional accent. And that’s something I always have in mind when I play that little bit. So all of these solos have their own characters.

OAW: And how about the role of the cello in the Schubert?

PW: In the Schubert, the cello’s role is much more uniting. In that quartet, and this is just my personal experience, I find myself listening to the first violin most of the time. The first violin carries an awful lot of that quartet, so I think my role is to anchor the first violin and then to give warmth and depth and a cushion of sound to the second violin and the viola. Of course the cello has a beautiful variation in the slow movement, and it has some virtuosic stuff in the first movement. It feels like I have to play in a much more symphonic way in the last movement because there’s this great storm section in the middle. It is very symphonic that last movement. So that reminds me much more of my days playing in the BBC Symphony. It’s not such a soloistic role. That’s where I need to create the basis for a really good blended, exciting string quartet sound.

OAW: Looking at some of the short videos that Lincoln Center put together, I heard Larry Dutton say, “Paul Watkins has a different sound, so now the Emerson sounds different.” I wonder if you had noticed that, and if so in what way the Emerson might sound different now.

PW: That’s an interesting question. I know the sounds of the Emerson Quartet from having heard them in concert in London and a number of their recordings, and it’s a wonderful sound. I haven’t made any conscious decision to try and change anything — I just know it’s going to be different. I have a different cello from the one David used. In fact David used a number of different cellos over the years while he was in the Quartet. He’s a great evangelizer for modern instrument making, which I’m 100 percent behind. My dad is an instrument maker in Wales. David is an anti-old-instrument snob, which is wonderful. He’s a crusader for so many things. But I am also very lucky to own a nice Venetian cello that dates from the 1730s. I suppose the easiest way to describe it is to say that David’s sound is perhaps like an operatic tenor whereas I’m a little bit more of a bass-baritone. So I think it’s a quality of voice that people have.

OAW: Do you have any plans for the future? For instance, do you have any other cycles coming up? I hear a rumor that there might be a Boccherini or Donizetti cycle coming up.

PW: [Laughing.] Oh, God no, I hope not. We are talking about cycles however, which is something the Quartet’s always done.

OAW: I hope you know I’m kidding. [Laughter.] I know that Donizetti has written 18 string quartets.

PW: Yes, I know. Gene was talking about Mstislav Weinberg the other day whose opera [The Passenger] was recently produced in New York. Weinberg was a friend of Shostakovich and he wrote a good number of string quartets, and he’s a very interesting composer, so we may end up looking into some of those.

We’re making a two-CD set at the moment. One is a recording of the Alban Berg Lyric Suite, an incredible piece, which is one of the great 20th century pieces for string quartet, very virtuosic. It’s got everything in it, including the “hidden vocal line” in the last movement, discovered in the late ‘70s by [American composer] George Perle and others. They found that Berg had embedded a secret vocal line in the score as a kind of love song to his mistress. You can extract the line, which is shared out amongst the players, and we’ve recorded it with Renée Fleming.

OAW: The line is extracted and she sings that while you play the sixth movement? How cool is that!

PW: Yes. We don’t change the way we play at all. There is a pocket score that was discovered with Berg’s annotations and the text that he set, which is a German translation of Baudelaire. He’s written the text in and you can see how it jumps between the cello, viola, and first and second violins. There is even one note for the soprano which happens during a rest for the quartet at a climactic point in the movement. So you can see that he really did conceive of it as a song.

We’re also recording Britten’s second and third string quartets with some [Henry] Purcell viol fantasias, which we’re playing as a string quartet, plus an edition Britten made of a Purcell chaconne. So that will be a Britton-Purcell CD, which is also coming out next year.

OAW: Well, there’s plenty to look forward to. Thank you so much.

 Portland’s Alice Hardesty is a poet, writer, and chamber music enthusiast who doesn’t play an instrument but loves listening to the music and talking to those who perform it. You can read her earlier interview with Emerson violinist Eugene Drucker here. Her other interviews have been archived on the websites of Friends of Chamber Music in Portland and Chamber Music Concerts in Ashland.

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