For cellist Paul Watkins, it all started with a phone call.
“They just phoned me up and asked if I was interested,” Watkins said. “It was a real shock. I was dumbfounded.”
“They” are violinists Eugene Drucker, Philip Setzer and violist Lawrence Dutton, who are the members of the Emerson String Quartet, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. The quartet will perform on Sunday as part of the Union College Concert Series.
Watkins was called because cellist David Finckel decided four years ago that after more than 20 years with the quartet he wanted to explore other opportunities. Finckel is also the co-artistic director of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center with his wife Wu Han.
Emerson String Quartet
WHEN: 3 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Union College Memorial Chapel
HOW MUCH: $30, free for students
MORE INFO: 388-6080; www.unioncollegeconcerts.org
At the time Watkins received that call, he was living in London with a busy career in chamber music, concerto appearances, recording, guest conducting, and as music director of the English Chamber Orchestra and principal conductor of the Ulster Orchestra. Although he had worked with the quartet’s members before, joining a long-standing quartet was not on his radar.
“But this was an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he said. “So I flew over and spent an afternoon playing with them. Everything clicked beautifully both personally and musically. I knew it would work.”
Yet he had to think seriously about accepting the job. The Emerson tours weeks at a time and does about 85 concerts a year. They set aside September and January to put together and rehearse up to about 15 pieces each season and frequently rehearse upcoming concerts on the road.
The quartet records frequently — they’ve won nine Grammy Awards among other distinctions, and are currently quartet-in-residence at Stony Brook University, where they all teach. Watkins also knew he’d have to move his family to the United States.
What clinched it for him was that he would still be able to conduct. This season he’ll make his debut conducting orchestras in Detroit, Omaha and Cleveland and he continues as artistic director of the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival in Detroit.
Now that he’s been the Emerson’s cellist a bit more than three years, he’s comfortable with his decision.
“It’s been intense,” he said, adding that the quartet had just returned from three weeks in Europe. “I couldn’t ask for anything better. I’ve never worked so hard in my life.”
What he loves is how varied their repertoire is. For the most part, Setzer puts together their programs with the others making occasional suggestions.
“He does a very good job of it and every year it’s different,” Watkins said.
Sharing the load
“We carry more varied repertoire — it all depends on presenters’ demands — than other quartets who are as busy as we are because we trade first violin parts equally. So there is not as much pressure for one violinist to learn these virtuosic parts.”
For their Sunday concert, they’ll perform Ravel’s Quartet in F Major, Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 10 in A-flat Major, and Debussy’s Quartet in G minor.
“I’ve played all of these but this is the first time I’ll play the Ravel and the Debussy on the same program,” Watkins said. “They go together with lush, rich harmonies. The Shostakovich is totally different with extremes. . . . simple and devastating power, irony, and a cleaner technique.”
After their Union concert, the quartet heads to Stony Brook and then over the next two weeks has concerts in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C. and Florida.
With such a complicated schedule and so much traveling, Watkins has found one problem.
“It’s difficult to find time [for him] to practice,” he said. “So I like to do short intense bursts.”