12:26pm

Sun June 9, 2013
Deceptive Cadence

David Finckel On The Emerson Quartet's Changing Of The Guard

Originally published on Thu June 13, 2013 12:09 pm

The Emerson String Quartet is one of the most acclaimed chamber groups in the world of classical music. Since their founding in 1976, the group has won nine Grammys for its recordings. Now, it has a new album out called Journeys: Tchaikovsky, Schoenberg — and it's the last recording with cellist David Finckel, one of the quartet's longtime members.

On the occasion of the new release, Finckel spoke with weekends on All Things Considered guest host Tess Vigeland about the bittersweet close to to a decades-long partnership.

Let's start with this new album, 'Journeys.' It starts out with Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence, which is the first four tracks.

I will say, listening to the Tchaikovsky, it doesn't really sound much like Florence, does it? At least not the Florence I know — maybe the Florence when the Arno flooded. But you know, it's an amazing work because there are moments of Florentine sunshine and leisurely afternoons. But it's basically a very Russian piece. And it's extraordinary and exciting, and I'm so glad I had the chance to record this with my quartet.

What goes into a recording like this one, and how much of that practice is solitary and how much is with the group?

You know, private practice — it's almost like your underwear. You don't wear it out in public, but you make sure it's in good order before put your clothes on, what everybody sees. The working together in rehearsals in an ensemble is something that you have to plan and schedule, and people take a best guess at how many hours it's gonna take to bring it to readiness for stage or recording studio. And sometimes you over-schedule and sometimes you under-schedule. If you've under-scheduled, somewhere in the session you make up the difference.

What was the experience of recording this last album with the quartet? Was it business as usual? Bittersweet for you?

You have to sort of put on your blinders sometimes and remember that the most important thing you're doing is playing the cello, playing in the ensemble, interpreting the work. I went through this not only with the recording but with all the many "last time" appearances that I made with the quartet. I was well aware that it would be the last time I would play in Florence, or the last time I would play in Munich, or even the last time I would play in New York. But you can't let those thoughts overtake you when you have the business of making music in front of you. So yes, in some ways it was business as usual. But when I had a moment to think that, yes, it was my last Emerson session, it was quite a sensation.

Do you think that seeped into these performances, even just in a small way?

I don't think so. I certainly would not have intended anything to be different in these performances other than what we had intended for the music.

The other piece on this album is by Schoenberg, who is, of course, famously atonal, very difficult to play. How did you come up with this pairing?

The result of atonality, or modulating a lot, is that you don't feel firmly grounded — your world is floating. But you know, for all of us, sometimes our worlds float: We're in transition, we're in turmoil. And this music expresses all those things beautifully and very powerfully. The Schoenberg is not "a-romantic" — it is actually one of the most romantic pieces in the literature. There's a story that goes with it: It was inspired by a poem about two lovers walking in the moonlight, and during this walk the woman confesses to the man that she is pregnant by another man. And after a lot of turmoil, the current boyfriend says, you know, I will accept the child as my own. It's an incredibly romantic and turbulent story, and it's all reflected in the music.

Do you have a favorite moment from this CD?

Well, I have to speak selfishly about the cello solos. Both Tchaikovsky and Schoenberg reserved some of their most glorious melodies for the cello. In the Schoenberg, for example, at the moment where the man announces his forgiveness of his girlfriend, there is an incredibly beautiful, positive cello solo. Glowing, magnificent ... I always feel like just the greatest guy in the world when I'm playing that. Unless I'm playing it badly, but I try not to do that.

In the world of classical music it's quite common to swap out players, but certainly not with the Emerson Quartet — you've been the same since 1979. I'm wondering how you broke the news to your fellow performers, your friends, that you'd decided to leave. Did they have an inkling that it might happen?

I think the other guys were shocked but not surprised; the world knows as well as they do how many hats I wear. And yes, of course, they were the first to know, in a very private way, and we had quite a few long, heartfelt discussions — not so much about my leaving but about the future of the quartet and what shape it should take and what the options were. Just a couple nights ago in Montreal they played their first concert with cellist Paul Watkins. I sent them a bottle of champagne backstage, and in my home at 8 o'clock that evening, I opened a bottle of champagne. So it was a really nice moment. It was the culmination of a two-year project for me to successfully disengage from the quartet and see it continue in high style. It was a very proud and wonderful moment for all of us.

As you look back, do any highlights jump to mind of your time with the Emerson?

There are so many highlights. And a lot of them are just personal. I remember when every single one of the Emerson children was born — you know, when somebody got a call in the middle of the night or had to run away from some rehearsal or concert to be with their wives. We've walked out on stage together when we were all absolutely scared to death and had no idea what was going to happen, and somehow got through it. We've lived through various disasters in concerts together and forgiven each other for them. I mean, these are all highlights of a classical music career and we could not be more fortunate to have them.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TESS VIGELAND, HOST:

And if you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Tess Vigeland. The Emerson String Quartet is one of the most acclaimed chamber music groups in the world. Since its founding in 1976, the quartet has won nine Grammys for its recordings. They have a new CD out called "Journeys," and it's the last recording with cellist David Finckel, who's retiring from the quartet after 33 years.

David Finckel joins us now from New York City. So nice to have you on the show.

DAVID FINCKEL: Nice to be here. Thank you for having me.

VIGELAND: Let's start with this new album, "Journeys." It starts out with Tchaikovsky's "Souvenir de Florence," which is the first four tracks on the new CD. Let's play a little bit of that first movement.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "SOUVENIR DE FLORENCE")

FINCKEL: I will say listening to the - Tchaikovsky, it doesn't really sound very much like Florence, does it?

(LAUGHTER)

FINCKEL: At least not the Florence I know. Maybe the Florence when the Arno flooded.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "SOUVENIR DE FLORENCE")

FINCKEL: But it's basically a very Russian piece. And it's extraordinary and exciting, and I'm so glad I had the chance to record this with my quartet.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, 'SOUVENIR DE FLORENCE")

VIGELAND: Well, we hear the end results of what I imagine must be long hours of very hard practice. So what goes into a recording like this one, and how much of that practice is solitary and how much is with the group?

FINCKEL: You know, private practice is like, you know, it's almost like your underwear, you know? You don't wear it out in public, but, you know, you make sure it's in good order before you put your clothes on, what everybody sees. The working together in rehearsals in an ensemble is something that you have to plan and schedule. And people take a best guess at how many hours it's going to take to bring it to readiness for stage or recording studio.

And sometimes you over-schedule and sometimes you under-schedule. And if you've under-scheduled, somewhere in the session, you make up the difference.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VIGELAND: David Finckel, what was the experience of recording this last album with the quartet? Was it business as usual, bittersweet for you?

FINCKEL: You know, you have to sort of put on your blinders, sometimes, and remember that the most important thing you're doing is playing the cello, playing in the ensemble, interpreting the work. I went through this not only with the recording but with all the many last-time appearances that I made with the quartet.

I was well aware that, you know, it would be the last time I would play in Florence, or the last time I would play in Munich. But, you know, you can't let those thoughts overtake you when you have the business of making music in front of you. So yes, in some ways, it was business as usual. But when I had a moment to think that, yes, it was my last Emerson session, it was quite a sensation.

VIGELAND: Do you think that that seeped in to these performances?

FINCKEL: I don't think so. I certainly would not have intended anything to be different in these performances other than what we had intended for the music.

VIGELAND: Well, the other piece on this album is by Schoenberg, who is, of course, famously atonal, very difficult to play. Let's hear a little of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "VERKLARTE NACHT, OP. 4")

VIGELAND: So we compared that with what we just heard with the Tchaikovsky. How did you come up with this pairing? Tchaikovsky is so romantic and melodical, really very different here.

FINCKEL: The passage that you happen to select to play is not necessarily atonal, but it moves through many different keys very, very quickly.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "VERKLARTE NACHT, OP. 4")

FINCKEL: The result of atonality or modulating a lot is that you don't feel firmly grounded. You know, your world is floating. But, you know, for all of us, sometimes our worlds float - we're in transition, we're in turmoil. And this music expresses all those things beautifully and very powerful.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "VERKLARTE NACHT, OP. 4")

FINCKEL: The Schoenberg is not aromantic. It is actually one of the most romantic pieces in the literature. You know, there's a story that goes with it. It was inspired by a poem about two lovers walking in the moonlight. And during this walk, the woman confesses to the man that she is pregnant by another man. And after a lot of turmoil, the current boyfriend says, you know, I will accept the child as my own. It's an incredibly romantic and turbulent story, and it's all reflected in the music.

VIGELAND: Do you have a favorite moment from this CD?

FINCKEL: Oh, well, you know, I have to speak selfishly about the cello solos. Both Tchaikovsky and Schoenberg reserved some of their most glorious melodies for the cello. In the Schoenberg, for example, at the moment where the man announces his forgiveness of his girlfriend, there is an incredibly beautiful, positive cello solo.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "VERKLARTE NACHT, OP. 4")

FINCKEL: Glowing, magnificent. And, you know, I always feel like just the greatest guy in the world when I'm playing that, unless I'm playing it badly. But I try not to do that, ever.

(LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, 'VERKLARTE NACHT, OP. 4")

VIGELAND: You know, I think some people may not realize this, but in the world of classical music, it's quite common to swap out players - but certainly not with the Emerson Quartet. You've been the same since 1979. So I'm wondering how you broke the news to your fellow performers - your friends - that you decided to leave. Did they have an inkling that it might happen?

FINCKEL: I think the other guys were shocked but not surprised. I mean, the world knows, as well as they do, how many hats I wear. And yes, of course, they were the first to know. And we had quite a few long, heartfelt discussions about the future of the quartet and what shape it should take and what the options were.

You know, just a couple nights ago in Montreal, they played their first concert with cellist Paul Watkins. And I sent them a bottle of champagne backstage, and in my home at 8 o'clock that evening, I opened a bottle of champagne. And so it was a really nice moment. It was the culmination of, like a two-year project for me to successfully disengage from the quartet and see it continue in high style.

VIGELAND: Well, you know, as you look back, any highlights that jump to mind of your time with the Emerson?

FINCKEL: You know, there are so many highlights. And a lot of them are just personal. You know, I remember when every single one of the Emerson children was born, when somebody got a call in the middle of the night or had to run away from some rehearsal or concert to be with their wives.

We've walked out on stage together when we were all absolutely scared to death and had no idea what was going to happen and somehow got through it. We've lived through various disasters in concerts together and forgiven each other for them. I mean, these are all highlights of a classical music career, and we could not be more fortunate to have them.

VIGELAND: The Emerson Quartet was not your only job over the last years. You're also a teacher, you created the music at Menlo Festival, you tour with your wife, the pianist Wu Han. Are you planning to keep doing those once you leave the quartet, or you are planning for the quiet retirement?

FINCKEL: Even after leaving the Emerson Quartet, I still am - I'm holding down eight jobs.

VIGELAND: Whoa. So where are you going to fit in your golf game?

FINCKEL: I'm sorry to confess. I really have no interest. Maybe someday.

(LAUGHTER)

VIGELAND: I would say you're busy enough. Well, David Finckel, thank you so much. And we look forward to seeing all of these other things that you will continue to do as you leave the Emerson String Quartet.

FINCKEL: Well, thank you so much. I think anybody that stays in touch with classical music probably will not be able to avoid seeing me somewhere or other.

VIGELAND: They will be happy to hear that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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