Archive for the ‘Emerson String Quartet’ Category

In a single, momentous week in May, David Finckel performed in numerous cities in a variety of roles. Here is his account of seven days, including his various concerts and the definitive, insider’s report on his long-awaited departure from the Emerson String Quartet.


In David’s words

Saturday, May 4   Reneé Fleming in Carnegie Hall

The opportunity to perform in Carnegie Hall is every musician’s dream.  I’ve been fortunate to play there many times, and my momentous week began in the Stern Auditorium (the main stage) in a concert belonging to soprano Renée Fleming, who had invited us to appear on the final performance of her Carnegie Hall Perspectives series.

In her intriguing program entitled “Window to Modernity”, she presented music from the transitional period between the Romantic and Modern eras, beginning with late Brahms and exploring music generated from the Second Viennese School.  Along with songs by Zeisl, Wellesz, Wagner, and Weigl, we performed Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night with colleagues from our recent recording, Paul Neubauer and Colin Carr. Pianist Jeremy Denk appeared with Renée in various repertoire, and performed two pieces from Brahms’s Op. 118. Renée hosted the concert, speaking about the music to the audience during the many complex stage changes.

At the post-concert reception, the musicians gathered with audience members Ronald Schoenberg and Barbara Zeisl-Schoenberg, the children of the composer. Ronald resembles his famous father very strongly.

Post Concert Party- Left to Right: Ronald Schoenberg, Philip Setzer, Barbara Zeisl-Schoenberg, Reneé Fleming, Eugene Drucker, Jeremy Denk, Lawrence Dutton, David Finckel

Sunday, May 5: The Trio plays in Montreal

The next morning, Philip Setzer, Wu Han and I left early for the Ladies Morning Musical Club series in Montreal. A longtime venue for the Emerson Quartet, and more recently our trio, we were welcomed for our second appearance that included performances of Haydn’s A major Trio, Dvorak’s “Dumky” Trio, and Mendelssohn’s d minor Trio.

Artists who perform for this series, which is held in the wonderful Pollack concert hall at McGill University, are always treated to the best of care and feeding.

Left to Right: David Finckel, Monique Prévost, Philip Setzer, Michèle Nepveu, Wu Han

As the concert ended by 5 p.m., we managed to return to New York that same evening.

Monday, May 6:  First rehearsal with Paul Watkins, Greene Space performance, CMS gala

After meetings which began at 8:00 a.m. and ran until lunchtime, Wu Han and I welcomed Gene, Phil, Larry and my Emerson Quartet successor Paul Watkins to our newly-expanded living room to rehearse the Schubert Cello Quintet. We were performing the Quintet at both the Chamber Music Society gala that night, and for my final concert with the Quartet the following Saturday.

The last time the quartet had rehearsed in our old apartment, it looked like this:

And by April, it looked like this:

It was the first time we got a look at the new ESQ.

The rehearsal was wonderful: intense, musical, friendly, joyful and celebratory.

Unbelievably, between our rehearsal and performance for the CMS gala, the Quartet raced down to WQXR’s Greene Space performance and broadcast venue for an hour-long, live streamed interview and concert, hosted by Jeff Spurgeon and produced by Martha Bonta. The quartet was joined by cellist Colin Carr and violist Paul Neubauer, who graciously agreed to play with us to promote our about-to-be-released CD “Journeys”, featuring string sextets by Schoenberg (Transfigured Night), and Tchaikovsky (Souvenir of Florence.)

A video of the performance can be found here.

After the performance and interviews, we were whisked past a throng of enthusiastic Emerson fans who had turned out to see my last public performance with the quartet in New York, into a van for a swift trip to the St. Regis Hotel, site of the CMS spring gala.

The room at the St. Regis is elegant and held 26 tables purchased by patrons and CMS board members, each of whom invited their own guests. Our gala chairs were James and Melissa O’Shaughnessy, Joan Harris, Elizabeth Smith, and Erwin and Pearl Staller, and the room was filled with an international collection of Emerson Quartet fans who had turned out to honor the quartet, past, present and future,  some coming from as far away as Seoul, Korea.

Within minutes of our arrival, we walked onto the stage to perform the Schubert Quintet, Paul Watkins taking his first bow as the incoming cellist of the Quartet.

After the performance, which was rewarded with a thunderous ovation, the speeches began.  We received gifts from Peter Frelinghuysen, Chairman of the Board, and the five us posed for our first picture together in public.

I then took the lectern to speak, paying tribute to the quartet from CMS, and, from the perspective of the Emerson, thanking CMS for its support over the years and the evening’s honor.

Having donned both CMS and ESQ hats during my dual-role remarks (much to the amusement of the guests) I concluded by officially welcoming Paul to the Quartet and crowning him with the ESQ hat.

The event was a stunning success, raising a hefty sum for CMS and providing the quartet and our families – all of whom attended – with an elegant and heartwarming occasion in which to celebrate the Quartet’s many accomplishments and exciting future.

Tuesday, May 7: The Quartet’s last tour performance, Buffalo, NY

Rising early after a late night with the Chamber Music Society, the four of us left for Buffalo to perform our last full quartet concert together. Fittingly, it was on one of America’s most hallowed chamber music series, which this year celebrates its 90th anniversary. We have appeared on this distinguished series many times, and our audience in this quartet-focused town has often included musical luminaries and mentors, such as Budapest Quartet cellist Mischa Schneider way back in the 1981-82 season.

Upon arriving in Buffalo, we learned almost immediately that the Buffalo Philharmonic was to play in Carnegie Hall the following evening as part of the Spring for Music orchestral festival. The city was immensely proud, with signage everywhere congratulating the orchestra on its coming appearance.

The Buffalo concert encapsulated many of the realities of heavy touring: Early flights for all; a lengthy, in-studio radio interview for me immediately on arrival; some crammed practicing in the hotel; an even more hectic rehearsal in which we prepared not only for Buffalo but for Washington’s concert; a very difficult program which included my last performances of Berg’s Lyric Suite, Dvorak’s d minor quartet, and Mozart’s quartet K. 499 in front of a discriminating audience; and finally, a post-concert trek back to the hotel for some Buffalo chicken wings for dinner.

Wednesday, May 8: CMS at the Harris Theater, Chicago

While my colleagues returned home to New York, I hurried to Chicago for the final performance of the Chamber Music Society’s annual series at Harris Theater. Beginning last year, the series has proved a stunning success, and our partnership with the theater has just been extended for another three seasons.

We were very proud to bring to Chicago the Society’s first all-Britten program, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth and the first such program in the history of CMS. On the program were Britten classics and novelties, including many extraordinary works composed at the beginning of his career. Of musicians featured were the Orion String Quartet, oboist James Austin Smith, pianist Gloria Chien, tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, countertenor Daniel Taylor, and me and Wu Han, who concluded the concert with Britten’s Sonata in C of 1961, composed for cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. I played the sonata for Rostropovich when I was in my mid-teens; one of the many rare opportunities I have had to play for musicians to whom composers dedicated their works to.

Cellist Tim Eddy

Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac for Countertenor, Tenor, and Piano, Op. 51

Phantasy Quartet for Oboe, Violin, Viola, and Cello, Op. 2

James Austin Smith, Gloria Chien

James Austin Smith, Gloria Chien

After the concert, which was attended by over 800 wildly enthusiastic patrons, we were graciously treated to a relaxed dinner in the stunningly beautiful home of Joan Harris.

Joan Harris, center

Thursday, May 9: A special rehearsal and another important gala

Upon our return to New York the next day on yet another early flight, we welcomed the eminent pianist Menahem Pressler to our home for lunch and a rehearsal with Wu Han. Next season, Menahem, the pianist of the Beaux Arts Trio for more than fifty years, celebrates his 90th birthday with special concerts in some of the world’s most distinguished venues. The Chamber Music Society will honor him with a concert in December, where he will be joined by Wu Han, violinist Daniel Hope, myself, and the new Emerson Quartet. And earlier, in November, Wu Han flies to Paris to join Menahem as a four-hand partner at the Salle Gaveau. I was treated to the sounds of their Schubert as I worked in my office.

After they finished, I invited Menahem to witness a poignant, personal moment in my career. While organizing my music for the coming weekend, I found that my concert binder contained only three more works that I would play with my quartet – quite a reduction from the usual thirty to forty pieces that the quartet has carried annually for so many years. But I was heartened to be able to beef up this collection with the music of my new future – trios, solo works, and a variety of wonderful chamber pieces that I will play within the next month. And once again, my concert folder felt heavy and full again, to the delight of both of us.

With hardly a break, Wu Han and I dressed up to look our best and headed off for an important Lincoln Center event: the annual Lincoln Center gala, honoring the President of Lincoln Center, Reynold Levy, who will step down in December after eleven years of service. During his tenure, he has raised well over a billion dollars for Lincoln Center, and has overseen the mammoth redevelopment of the campus, which included the stunning renovation of our own Alice Tully Hall in its initial phase. Lincoln Center, and indeed all of New York, owes Reynold incalculable gratitude, and we were more than proud to have been invited to this event personally by him. The Chamber Music Society made us proud to have purchased a table, which was well stocked with our prominent board members, and we were more than thrilled to be seated by Reynold with his close friend, Lincoln Center board member Bart Friedman, former Ambassador to China, Winston Lord, and his wife, novelist Bette Bao Lord, and United States Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice.

Lincoln Center Board Chair Katherine Farley welcomes Reynold Levy to the stage

We were also delighted to have a brief but ecstatic moment with two people whom we deeply admire, and who we are now privileged to count among our good friends: Ric Scofidio and Elizabeth Diller, the brilliant architects who re-imagined Lincoln Center to universal acclaim, and who have just been announced as the winning architects for the coming MoMA re-design.

Friday, May 10: Rehearsals, teaching and the CMS Britten Centennial concert

Friday morning was spent  in our gorgeous, and I believe now-incomparable,  Alice Tully Hall. I personally have not heard a chamber hall in the world, especially of that size (900-1000 seats) with such extraordinary acoustics.  And what a pleasure to hear the amazing music of Benjamin Britten in it, with all its ingenious details and vibrant colors so clearly and compellingly heard.

In between rehearsal and concert I spent some serious time at the Juilliard School, meeting with the administration and coaching some ensembles.  Next year I will be able to gradually increase my teaching availability, and I am already wondering how I can possibly take on the six chamber ensembles that have asked me to work with them during the fall semester.

That evening we repeated the Chicago program, and once again, the large audience responded with the kind of excitement that presenters dream of – especially for programs of 20th century music. Our capping of the program with the Sonata was a personal highlight of our year, and a great way for us to finish our performances for the CMS 2012-13 season. Although I am usually not one to talk about reviews, I cannot help but mention the three raves this program received in Chicago, and the rare stamp of complete approval from the New York Times.

After the concert, there was a party for members of CMS Now, a membership program for young professionals created by CMS Director of Marketing Lauren Bailey.  Approximately 100  young listeners jammed the Rose Studio to spend some relaxed, quality time together, imbibing wonderful wines and spirits provided by Warwick Vineyards and event sponsor The L Magazine.

Photo credit: Tristan Cook

Photo credit: Tristan Cook

Saturday, May 11: Packing for a long trip, a cello recital, a train trip, my final Emerson concert

After a short night, we were up early to pack for our upcoming trip to California, then Korea. I was at the Juilliard School at 8:30am to hear the dress rehearsal of my cello student, Sarina Zhang, in Paul Recital Hall. Sarina has graduated with distinction from Juilliard Pre-College and will continue her cello studies next year at the college with Richard Aaron and myself, and her piano studies with Yoheved Kaplinsky.

After some brief work in the CMS office (which is a 60-second walk from the Juilliard School) I returned at 11 a.m. to Paul Hall to hear Sarina and her pianist Carlos Avila perform Beethoven’s Sonata in C major, and to hear Sarina play two fiendishly difficult unaccompanied pieces by Joel Friedman. Unfortunately I had to miss her Chopin Sonata with pianist Jun Cho because I had to catch the 12:05 p.m. train to Washington.

My last trip to Washington was the beginning of my historic end of days with the Emerson Quartet. Traveling with my family, I was filmed wistfully looking out the window, and working on the short speech that I would deliver at the concert. Upon arriving in Washington, Wu Han raced off to the WETA station for an interview, and I plunged into my last rehearsal, ever, with the Emerson String Quartet. It was a bit strange, I’ll admit, and at the conclusion of it, we all went our separate ways, perhaps somewhat wary of confronting the reality of the moment.

We have enjoyed an annual series at the Smithsonian for thirty-five years, which began one year before I joined the quartet. There could not have been a more fitting place for me to say goodbye to the quartet.

The backstage scene at the Natural History Museum’s Baird Auditorium was very different than usual. American Public Media came all the way from Minnesota to record the concert, bringing with them their star announcer, our long-time friend Fred Child. I have done more interviews with Fred than I can remember, but they have always been memorable, enjoyable and intelligently conceived.  It is a privilege to be welcomed to the airwaves, and now the internet, by such a virtuoso media personality.

Wu Han with Fred Child

After a brief introduction by incoming Smithsonian Resident Associates Director Frederica Adelman, and Fred Child, the Emerson took the stage for a somewhat nerve-wracking performance of Haydn’s Quartet Op. 20 No. 4. I’m not sure if my colleagues felt the same way, but I was mostly concerned with not making a mess of my last Haydn Quartet, and thoughts of the significance of the moment and the sentimentality potentially attached to it, found little room in my brain. The Haydn  began and ended without significant incident that I can remember, and we plunged into the frenetic and breathless Bartok 3rd quartet, which, I daresay, went as well or better than it ever has, at a fever pitch, and all the more so because we didn’t have the chance to rehearse a note of it.  It continues to mystify me how this works, but quite often in classical music, rehearsals often complicate matters, especially when an ensemble already knows a piece quite well.  I think we were all rather amazed.

Fredrica Adelman

During the intermission I spoke with Fred Child, who asked the inevitable “How are you feeling right about now?” question, and I responded the best I could.

And then came the moment the music world had been waiting well more than a year for: the transition from me to Paul via the immortal Schubert Quintet for string quartet with an extra cello. Before we began, I said a few words, and as I had written them out, I’ll share them right here:

I have two thank you’s and two tributes and I will be brief:

  1. Thanks to Smithsonian Institution – for providing us a home in which we grew, a unique place where we have played more concerts than any other, and likely performed every quartet that we have ever learned.
  2. And thanks to you, our audience tonight, composed of many who have come a great distance to be with us, and those of you who have been with us for many concerts, like Carl Girshman, Carl, where are you and what number Emerson concert is this for you?

And now two quick tributes: to my colleagues Phil, Gene and Larry for having had the courage and imagination to re-envision the future of the Emerson Quartet, and

to Paul Watkins, my brilliant successor, for making that exciting future possible.

Please enjoy the concert, and thank you very much.

David speaks from stage.

The performance of the Schubert was everything I had hoped for. Paul played magnificently; his energy, excitement and artistry permeated the ensemble and the entire room. The Smithsonian public welcomed him with open arms, and the warmth of the event allowed me to leave the hall with a sense that all I had helped to build there will continue with strength and conviction.

But the night was not over. Running to our various cars in a drenching rain, the Emerson Quartet and its families headed to Chevy Chase where an intimate party was given at the home of close friends Rob Josephs and Gerri Carr, co-hosted by Kathe and Edwin Williamson.

Rob and Gerri, left

The party went quite late, there were speeches, and I was presented by the quartet with a beautiful gold watch which they had purchased in the Bavarian town of Badenweiler earlier this year, on the occasion of my last concert there.  The inscription reads: “To David, the ESQ Time Meister   ‘It was the best of times’ With love and admiration Phil, Gene and Larry”

Way too late, the members of the Emerson Quartet, new and old, headed off into their new lives. For me, Phil and Wu Han, it was another early flight the next morning, to California, where we concluded Music@Menlo’s Winter Series with a trio concert. And the next day, it was off to Korea on a long flight, which thankfully has given me the time to complete this very long blog about this week – one certainly like no other.

A partial list of people who journeyed considerable distances to be with the Emerson Quartet during the transitional week:

Bill and Valerie Graham, Charlotte, VT

Marty and Sarah Flug, Aspen, CO

Jeehyun Kim, Seoul, Korea

Judith Barnard and Michael Fain, Aspen, CO

Joan Harris, Chicago, IL

Robert and Diana Hardy, St. Louis, MO

Ben Larsen, New York, NY

Harold & Jann Slapin, Basking Ridge, NJ

Irvine and Elizabeth Flinn, New York, NY

Freddie and Irwin Staller, NY

Harvey and Alisa Eisenberg, Newport Beach, CA

Robert and Shirley Kenny, Richmond, VA

Margaret and Da-Hong Seetoo, Forest Hills Gardens, NY

Matthew Zelle, New York, NY (IMG Artists)

Linda Petrikova, New York, NY  (IMG Artists)

Shirley Kirshbaum, New York, NY (Kirshbaum/Demler Associates)

Susan Demler, New York, NY (Kirshbaum/Demler Associates)

Milina Barry, New York, NY (Milina Barry PR)

… and our family members

Margaret Lim (Boston, MA)

Kim Lim (New York, NY)

Jesse, Luke, Sam Dutton and Elizabeth Lim-Dutton (Bronxville, NY)

Linda Setzer (South Orange, NJ)

Katia Setzer (Philadelphia, PA)

Wu Han (New York, NY)

Lilian Finckel (New York, NY)

Alisa Eisenberg, Margaret Seetoo, Harvey Eisenberg, Irvine Flinn

Efrem and Michael Calingaert, Eugene Drucker, Diana Hardy

Kim Lim, Efrem and Michael Calingaert, Philip Setzer

Emerson Quartet group hug

Emerson Quartet group hug.

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In little more than 24 hours, the Emerson Quartet blasted in and out of Moscow to perform at the December Nights Festival for the first time. Despite the exhausting travel schedule, David took every opportunity he could to fully experience this amazing city.


In David’s words

Not many soloists or ensembles from America plan and execute run-outs to Russia. The fact that Moscow sits on the east side of the vast country does little to make it seem any closer.  Having flown into Boston Sunday morning, rehearsed, and played a concert for the Celebrity Series, the quartet shared a few hurried minutes with the series’ donors, well-wishers, and autograph seekers.  The Celebrity Series, always the efficient and thoughtful host, had a car waiting to rush the quartet to Boston’s Logan Airport for a 7:45 p.m. Air France flight to Paris.

My formula of avoiding alcohol or coffee, plus a sleeping pill, worked like a charm, and I slept the whole way over. At Charles de Gaulle, there was another mad dash for the connecting flight to Moscow. During the long flight, the new-found daylight faded to dusk and eventually the sky turned dark as we had changed time zones into Monday evening (Russia has nine time zones).  And the days are short during the Moscow winter.

Getting through customs at the airport is a crazy prospect for anyone carrying an instrument.  The officials, wanting to make sure you don’t take any instruments out of Russia that aren’t yours, insist on a long, drawn-out procedure that requires musicians to arrive with sets of detailed photos of instruments and bows, plus papers stating ownership and value.   There have been recent stories of musicians not having had the proper paperwork and going through nightmares, so we were all well prepared.  I am thankful every day that I have a crackerjack staff who takes care of most of the work for me; I don’t know how other musicians manage to find the time. Maria, our charming host from the festival, was waiting for us at customs, ready to explain everything we needed to know. Without her, one torturous hour could have easily turned into three.

After the very slow process of customs agents examining our instruments, copying passports, stamping documents, etc., we emerged into the cold Moscow night, cramming ourselves into a van. We were warned of traffic going into Moscow (at 7:30 p.m.) and sure enough, we sat on the highways for nearly two hours on a trip that should only take 30 minutes.

Arrival at the elegant Marriott Tverskaya was a relief.  I was quickly in touch with my good friend Igor Naidin, violist of the Borodin Quartet, and within 40 minutes he arrived at the hotel, ready to take us out to dinner. We enjoyed a brisk walk to the famous Pushkin Café, a reconstructed, historically-informed environment that harks back to the days of the founder of modern Russian literature.

Alexander Pushkin lived roughly during the time of Beethoven, and was the first to introduce international concepts into Russian literature, excelling in every genre he tackled.  Such was the magnetism of his work that it became the inspiration for composers such as Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Rachmaninov and Stravinsky.  The stories of the famous operas we know – Eugene Onegin, Boris Godunov, the Queen of Spades – all came from Pushkin’s pen.  He died tragically in a duel at the age of 37.

Monument of Pushkin in Pushkin Place

Igor Naidin is both the youngest and longest-tenured member of his quartet.  The Borodin Quartet, famous and beloved by audiences the world over for its definitive performances and recordings of a wide range of literature, has had many personnel changes since it was founded in 1945 at the Moscow Conservatory. The original cellist was none other than Rostropovich, who soon left to pursue, understandably, his unparalleled career as a soloist. His replacement, Valentin Berlinsky, was a fantastic cellist, one of the best in a quartet ever. His tone, technique and musicianship helped guide the group throughout its history until he passed away in 2008. (Several years ago, I became the proud owner of Berlinsky’s bow, which he used for concerts for duration of his career).

Having a tireless, generous and fun-loving local as a guide in a foreign city like Moscow is an indispensable asset if you want to make the most out of a short stay.  After dinner, we headed back to the hotel where we took Igor up on his offer to drive us around Moscow during the late-night, low-traffic hours. The sights were so extraordinary that I hardly noticed the bitter cold.

Our first stop was the street monument in memory of Rostropovich.  The stunningly realistic sculpture was unveiled in 2012, five years after the great musician’s passing. What a triumph for Slava and his family to be so embraced by the government which once persecuted them and stripped them of their citizenship. Slava is positioned facing the building in which he and Shostakovich owned apartments, with the Conservatory where he learned and taught only couple of blocks behind him, and a beautiful old church to his left.

Although Slava is hunched over his cello in a way that I never saw, the perspective from the street is a familiar one that so many people experienced while sitting below him at a concert, staring up his unbelievably intense face and long fingers running over the strings like a giant spider.  The statue certainly brings back memories, and captures Slava the way so many hundreds of thousands remember him.

It was a very short hop from Slava’s memorial to that of another great Russian musician, Tchaikovsky, who is imposingly positioned directly in front of the Moscow Conservatory.

From there we headed directly to the Kremlin, passing the magnificent Bolshoi Opera House on the way.

One of the great tourist sites of the world, the Kremlin looks even more spectacular at night, and perhaps more friendly as well. We returned to the hotel exhausted but dazzled and inspired.

Up early the next morning, I squeezed in several hours of practicing before being met by Maria and our faithful driver Maxim, who had volunteered to take us to the Novodevechy cemetery, one of, if not the most legendary cemetery in the world. Literally all of Russia’s cultural heroes lie there, including the recent arrival Rostropovich.  I simply had to go, but unfortunately, my colleagues in the quartet were either too tired or busy to go (some of them had seen it on our last visit here, seven years ago). On the way we encountered stunning sights like this one-of-many Stalinist-style buildings (now a Radisson Hotel) and the Russian White House.

But the sight of the beautiful Novodevechy Convent (once a 13th century fortress) heightened anticipation of a profound experience.

There was a gentle snow falling, the light was on the dim side, and upon entering the cemetery one is captivated by its magic.

With headstones chiefly black in color, it is somber without being depressing.  Most of the tall stones have sculpted heads on them, so the place feels full of personalities. The capping of snow made many of them look like cone-heads, for those of you who remember these characters from Saturday Night Live.

Slava being Slava, unstoppable and refusing any answer but yes when he wanted something, somehow posthumously secured for himself the absolute prime site in the cemetery for his grave, right on the corner, halfway down the main pathway.  You can see his headstone from the street.  They must have moved someone out of there for him.

It is still shocking for me to see his dates written. They delineate the earthly life of a man who all of us expected, somehow, to be around forever. Thankfully, Slava’s great legacy is one of the most well-documented in musical history, and I need only to put on his early recording of the Saint-Saens Concerto to recall the excitement and inspiration I felt when I first heard it at ten years old.

Next, we went to see the grave of Shostakovich, and it makes one realize how much changed in Russia between 1974 and 2007.  Off to the side, in another area walled off from the main part, Shostakovich’s plain stone block sits on a narrow path that had not even been shoveled.  It is, however, completely in character with the composer: simple, not wanting to call attention to itself, modest and withdrawn.

The cemetery map, even after one wipes the snow off, is almost impossible to read, and then proves inaccurate once you do find your destination.  We had to ask the snow-shovelers where the grave of Shostakovich was.  There are no markers directing you to famous people.

After paying my respects to the composer whose music I’ve played perhaps more than any composer save Beethoven, we circled around to find the grave of the violinist David Oistrakh, a colleague of Rostropovich with whom he performed often.  One of the great violinists of all time, his legendary recordings still set the standard for beauty of sound, for the most heartfelt renderings of the major classics such as the Brahms Concerto, and for the great works he premiered by Shostakovich.  His grave, although not well marked, is relatively hard to miss, as a sculpture of him playing is positioned atop the stone.

On our way out I happened upon a gravestone with music on it, and instantly recognized the beautiful first phrase of Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations.  The grave, I learned, belonged to the great Russian cellist Sviatoslav Knushevitsky, who performed in a piano trio with David Oistrakh and pianist Lev Oborin.

I dashed to the hotel just in time to gather things for the rehearsal and concert. Cramming into the van again, we drove a short distance to our venue, the Pushkin Museum.

The Pushkin Museum is one of Moscow’s great art museums; it has nothing to do with Pushkin save the name, which was given to it in 1937 on the hundredth anniversary of the writer’s death.  The grand building houses a stunning collection, including the only painting that Vincent van Gogh ever sold, and the famous trove of gold looted from Troy by the German archeologist Heinrich Schliemann. The museum has been the home of the December Nights Festival since the festival’s founding in 1981.

The concerts take place in a large, high-ceilinged rectangular room with a stone floor and booming acoustics.

The pre-concert preparations included all kinds of challenges (no music stands, no cello platform, a wandering recording engineer setting up microphones hovering precariously over us, etc.)

But we were rewarded at the end of the rehearsal with a dressing area in one of the sculpture galleries, with food graciously laid out and many people to tend to our needs.  It was truly a unique backstage scene. The bathroom is two long flights down.

Larry consulted Igor about note discrepancies in the viola part of Shostakovich Quartet No. 12. Igor told us that his quartet – the leading authority on the works – has discovered many inconsistencies and questionable notes in the cycle.

The concert went off without a hitch and the public was very appreciative; the Shostakovich Quartet carried an understandably special intensity. (I will describe in detail, experiences of playing under heightened, extraordinary circumstances, in a forthcoming Huffington Post blog, sometime after May.)

At the conclusion of the concert, the audience and musicians all race to get through the same door which is about 10 feet wide.  It was quite a challenge.

Igor was backstage ready to whisk us off to dinner, but not before we met two distinguished ladies: Irina Shostakovich, the third and final spouse of the composer, and Natalya Solzhenitsyn, widow of the great dissident writer whom Rostropovich housed in his dacha during the writer’s banishment from Moscow.

Irina Shostakovich, right

Dinner was at the Tchaikovsky Restaurant near the hotel, a musician hangout, where we all had lots of good food and vodka. As we ate, violist Yuri Bashmet, the director of the December Nights Festival, passed by after his dinner, saying a nice hello without apology for having missed our concert.

I’m not sure when or if I will return to Russia in the future.  But on this visit I accomplished some important missions and had a very wonderful time.  A future trip, if it happens, will be for much longer duration, and will provide many mre opportunities for playing, teaching and learning.

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Heading to various airports on various days, the Emerson String Quartet met up for their first concert in mainland China, in the city of Shenzen.  Accompanying them were family members and Emerson recording producer Da-Hong Seetoo, who helped arrange the trip in collaboration with the Chinese presenting organization, Propel.  The quartet’s three appearences were in Shenzen, Tianjin, and Beijing.


In David’s words

There are very few musically significant locations left in the world that the Emerson Quartet has not visited, and yet, for whatever reason, we had never played on Chinese mainland soil (excluding Hong Kong and Macau, which aren’t considered mainland).  So this trip was an historic one for the quartet, and for me especially, an 11th hour opportunity to put a glaringly-missing pin on my map of Emerson worldwide appearances.

An early arrival in Beijing allowed me, Philip Setzer, and Da-Hong Seetoo, with our families, the chance to visit the Great Wall and Forbidden City on consecutive days.

Margaret Seetoo

The presence of family and friends has always been a great gift on any Emerson tour, and it was especially gratifying to be able to share these extraordinary experiences with our loved ones.

Left to Right: Linda Setzer, Eric Tang, Evelyne Tang, Lilian Finckel, Da-Hong Seetoo, Wu Han

Left to right: Elizabeth Tang, Wu Han, Katia Setzer, Linda Setzer, Lilian Finckel

The heat hovered around 100 degrees in the daytime.

Evening was better, allowing us to visit one of China’s famous and ubiquitous attractions, a Night Market, complete with unfathomable things to eat.

On Tuesday evening, after our Forbidden City tour, Wu Han and I performed at the American Embassy as representatives of Lincoln Center, at the request of Lincoln Center president, Reynold Levy.  Lincoln Center’s programming and administrative expertise are helping to guide new arts centers in China.

On Wednesday Philip, Da-Hong and I flew south to the city of Shenzen, which sits across the border from Hong Kong.  Shenzen, once a small fishing village, became, under Deng Xiaoping, China’s first special economic zone, and has expanded rapidly ever since. It is now one of China’s most modern cities.

Being near the water (it is a thriving port) the heat was coupled with intense humidity, providing a special challenge for humans, instruments and buildings.

The concert, held in a large and beautiful hall, and was well attended. Da-Hong provided commentary from the stage on each of the works we performed: Mozart’s K.  575, the Shostakovich 8th Quartet, and Dvorak’s “American” Quartet.  He also gamely announced the encores, darting on and off the stage as necessary.  (I had prepared and practiced the encore announcements in Chinese but spared the audience my undoubtedly laughable pronunciation).

After a delicious late dinner we returned to the stunning Marco Polo hotel, a gracious sponsor of the series, but not before visiting the 96th floor of a nearby skyscraper hotel, one of the tallest buildings in Asia.

Thursday was a travel day from hell, as we left early only to sit on the runway for four-and-a-half hours due to bad weather.  Landing in the late afternoon in Tianjin, we were rushed to the Cultural Center for a press conference and a national broadcast filming of an excerpt from our program.  Darkness falling, we scrambled to a nearby restaurant for a much-welcomed meal but then had to cap the day off with a 2-and-a-half hour bus ride back to Beijing.

On Friday we turned right around, boarded the bus again (this time with most of our families) and headed back to Tianjin for our concert.

The Cultural Center is on a scale that I have never seen.  Its size makes the Kennedy Center look almost miniature.  The concert hall sits on a lake the size of several football fields, and boasts a fountain which produces a phenomenal show, synchronized with music that is blasted all around the lake.

For this concert, Wu Han provided a pre-concert talk (her first one in Chinese) in an adjacent room.

The crowd seemed to love the concert and, as always, it is extremely gratifying to connect with and perform for an entire hall of people who have never heard us before.  After the concert, the lobby was mobbed with people waiting for autographs on their programs and CD’s.  A spectacular lighted fountain show greeted us as we departed.

Left to right: Elizabeth Tang, Stephanie Seetoo, Leon Seetoo, Lilian Finckel

For dinner we were treated to a famous local delicacy – a dumpling called “Go-bo-li-bao” which means roughly: “this is so delicious that even your faithful dog will leave you for it.”  They were delicious indeed, and it was a special pleasure to spend a whole meal with the man who made the tour possible, cultural entrepreneur Chien Chung, director of Propel Management Company which brought us to China, and also director of programming at the Tianjin Cultural Center.

The next morning, while the rest of the crowd slept in, Wu Han and I headed for the Beijing Central Conservatory, passing famous Tianamen Square on the way.

I was honored to join the distinguished list of visiting professors.

Four cellists from the pre-college division played concertos by Shostakovich, Saint-Saens, Dvorak and Davidoff.  Each one was phenomenally gifted, and it was an inspirational morning. Da-Hong and Wu Han assisted with translation and some piano accompanying as needed.

We were equally amazed to see the extensive buildings of the conservatory, which teaches one thousand students in its college and another thousand in its pre-college division. The building holding the practice rooms is a full fourteen stories high.

For our final concert, we were driven through massive gates and past heavy security into the very heart of China: the Forbidden City.

The concert hall of the Forbidden City is a somewhat worn but glorious venue with stellar acoustics, and a distinguished history of concerts by the world’s most important musicians. It was indeed gratifying for the Emerson Quartet to finally join this list.

After the concert, we experienced perhaps the largest collection of record buyers and autograph seekers ever, probably only rivaled by our recent experiences in Korea at the LG Arts Center. It was of course also very heartening to see how young our audience was, and how thrilled they were to hear and meet us.

A final late dinner, surrounded by all our managers, tour guides and many invited young musicians, capped off the Emerson’s first visit to China. I am especially grateful that I had the opportunity to appear with my quartet in its debut on the mainland, and I am happy that I may have helped pave the way for many more tours for the Emerson in the future.  The Chinese audience, comprised of so many music lovers and young musicians, deserves to hear quartet playing on the level the Emerson will continue to provide, and undoubtedly, the quartet’s presence in China will help chamber music to take a secure foothold in this most vast and rapidly growing society.

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During a break on the Emerson Quartet’s European tour, David, accompanied by colleague Philip Setzer, spent two full days in the magnificent city of Prague, soaking up experiences and information which will undoubtedly find their way into future projects for The Chamber Music Society, ArtistLed, Music@Menlo, Stony Brook University, and for David’s new affiliation, the Juilliard School.


In David’s words

May 21st and 22nd, 2012, will live in memory as two of the most extraordinary days in all my travels. Although I have been extremely fortunate in stumbling upon life-changing enrichment opportunities, I can’t recall a period of forty-eight hours that has ever yielded such rare and overwhelming experiences.

For the good fortune of these two days amazing days, I would like to acknowledge the generosity of a number of extraordinary individuals: first, American musicologists Kathryn Libin (Vassar College) and Michael Beckerman (New York University), who both advised me prior to the trip, and led me to our guide-on-the-ground, musicologist David Beveridge, an American who has resided in Prague since the early 1990’s and is currently at work on a massive biography of Dvořák; and second, the members of the Lobkowicz family who not only opened their castles but their home for us, offering Phil and me the warmest of welcomes.

Sunday night, May 20

Having left Larry and Gene in Portugal during the early hours of Sunday, we journeyed all day, and arrived in Prague with enough time to check in and head over to our reserved table at the Blue Duck, one of Prague’s destination restaurants; known both for its food and its stunningly beautiful décor.

Prague at night is as magical as any city in the world.

Monday, May 21

A brisk walk back over the Charles Bridge (we had been on the other bank, the Stare Mesto, for dinner the previous night) took us to the Dvořák Museum where we were met by David Beveridge at 10am sharp.

David, who is a regular visitor to the museum, and speaks perfect Czech, had arranged everything for us, and after filling out forms and showing our passports, we were ushered into the reading room. The manuscripts, already fetched from the vault, were laid in front of us.  We donned white gloves before touching the manuscripts, while David and the museum staff looked on in amusement.

For the next four hours we poured over Dvořák’s handwritten scores of his Trio in f minor and the “Dumky” Trio.  The examination of an original manuscript, especially of music this famous, is an incomparable thrill for any musician. Just to know that your fingers are turning the pages that Dvořák himself turned is exciting enough, but then to be able to absorb the spirit of the creative moment is another level altogether.  As all music looks relatively the same once it is printed, so do all works and composers come across vastly differently through manuscript scores. Sadly, the tradition of hand-written music is disappearing as composers rely on computers to notate their music.

My final treat was to hold the orchestral score of Dvořák’s immortal Cello Concerto.

Besides noticing details that conflict with our printed editions of the works (and carefully notating them in our music, which we brought along) one sees amazing things in manuscripts that can actually affect the interpretation.  You can easily see, for example, where a composer struggled to write, as opposed to composing in an unbroken, free-flowing stream of ideas. You can see changes that were made later, dynamics changed, expression marks added, all possibly after the pieces were first tried out and heard. Often it is obvious from the writing what element was most important in the composer’s mind at a given moment: was it the dynamic marking, the tempo, the articulation?  Sometimes the music simply looks loud or soft, or phrases look elongated, or passages muddled and frantic.

In some instances, in spite of changes, the first idea a composer had can still be seen. For example, in the opening slow section of the Dumky Trio, the violin and cello engage in a slow dialogue of quarter notes:

However, covered over by a new patch of manuscript was another concept of this music (we were able to open between them just enough to peek inside).

Before Dvořák settled on the final version as we know it, he had the violin and cello playing these long notes with tremolos.

Of course we will not play it this way, as it was not Dvořák’s final wish.  However, the idea that he originally conceived of these notes having such inner energy will undoubtedly influence the kind of vibrato we use.

Hurrying through the very end of our study session, we departed for our 2:30 appointment at Prague Castle with a very important friend.  To introduce him here, I will now share with you a large excerpt from the Artistic Director Welcome Message that Wu Han and I wrote this past spring for a concert from the Chamber Music Society’s Immortal Investments festival:

Several summers ago, as Wu Han and I entered the Lobkowicz Palace in Prague, we had no idea that an entire CMS season theme was about to be born. We were making our first visit to the imposing Prague Castle that has dominated the Prague skyline since the 9th century, and which encompasses many small palaces and historic buildings, making it the largest intact castle complex in the world.  The palace belonging to the Lobkowicz family is enclosed within the castle, and its entrance caught our eye, as it displayed the name of Beethoven.

Upon visiting the palace museum, one is quickly apprised of the history of the Lobkowicz family over its seven-hundred year span, including extraordinary events in the 20th century.  The family’s possessions were twice confiscated, first by the Nazis in 1939, and, shortly after the family’s return in 1945, again by the Soviets. Maximilian Lobkowicz once again took his family into exile, with little more than his coat and hat. Making this story all the more personal is the fact that it is relayed to palace visitors via audioguide by Maximilian’s grandson William, in a warm, American-accented voice (he was raised in America). William Lobkowicz, upon the occasion of the Velvet Revolution of 1989 and the fall of Communisn, moved his family from Massachusetts to Prague to begin the complex process of re-possessing his family’s belongings, which included many castles and a vast collection of antiquities such as paintings, porcelain, arms, and musical instruments.

Among William’s many distinguished ancestors, one stands out for his contribution to music: the seventh prince, Joseph Franz Maximilian Lobkowicz, who lived from 1772 to1816. He helped to organize the stipend that kept Beethoven alive and well in Vienna, and, in addition, his commissions from Beethoven included the composer’s the 3rd, 5th and 6th symphonies.  Haydn also benefitted from the prince’s patronage. 

Awed by our surroundings, we began our tour of the palace, guided from room to room by William’s engaging and personal explanations of the exhibits. (Of a ring on the finger of an ancestor in a 500-year old portrait, William says “my mother still wears it sometimes”).  And suddenly, as we stood near this painting, William Lobkowicz himself walked briskly into the room.

We are not inclined to impose ourselves on people, but in this instance an overwhelming desire to connect pushed us in pursuit of William, overtaking him and introducing ourselves as simply musicians grateful beyond words for his family’s incredible contribution to our art. It was a moment in our lives that we shall never forget, a thrilling experience.

Having been honored by the presence of almost the entire Lobkowicz family at the CMS concert in February, and having enjoyed a stimulating discussion of future projects in our home the next day over bagels and lox, it was a fitting time to reconnect with this extraordinary family on the soil of their ancestors and among the astounding and vast holdings of the family connection.

After a quick coffee in the Lobkowicz Palace, Phil and I jumped into William’s car and began the half-hour journey to the nearby town of Nelahozeves.

The little town of Nelahozeves, founded in the tenth century, sits on the Moldau, as does Prague itself.  In 1553 a wealthy family from Innsbruck began transforming the hilltop fortress into a real castle, in Renaissance style, using Italian craftsmen.  And, in 1623, the castle was sold to Polyxena Lobkowicz, of the Pernstein family branch.  The castle is now a museum that houses not only much larger collections than the Palace in Prague, but also the family archives, which contain thousands upon thousands of rare books, documents, music manuscripts, and art.

But the story from Nelahozeves that truly resounds around the world is not the magnificent one of the glorious Lobkowicz dynasty.  Rather it is the story of the modest butcher and tavern keeper living in the small house at the foot of the castle, who had a son in 1841 and named him Antonín  – Antonín  Dvořák.

Dvořák’s father Frantisek ran a business that was common in those days, that of a combination meat store – tavern – gathering place.  The house sits a stone’s throw from the church across the street, where Antonín was baptized, which is a stone’s throw from the Moldau and the train tracks, which both run right into Prague.

Looming above everything is the imposing Nelahozeves castle.  One wonders how the Dvořák’s felt looking up at it with its royal residents, and how the Lobkowicz family looked upon the modest abode of the town butcher. Could they have known that someday, the music of the butcher’s baby would be in the minds and hearts of an entire world of music lovers, of which the name Dvořák resides in the pantheon of the world’s greatest artists.

Our visit in Nelahozeves began with the Dvořák birth house. William had graciously arranged everything, and we were greeted by the small, friendly staff that operates the little museum.

Dvořák’s birth room.

The items in the house are not those which were there when Dvořák was born; however, some have been brought there from Dvořák’s later residences.  These include his favorite rocking chair.

The tiny church across the street contains the 16th c. font in which Antonín  was baptized. (Dvořák remained a devout Catholic his whole life, and later was appalled that so wonderful a man as Brahms was essentially an atheist: “Such a great soul, and he believes in nothing!” )

William was excited and happy to show us around the house, and why wouldn’t he be? He owns it, and generously leases it to the State for a crown a year to run as a museum.  But, as it is with the rest of his family holdings, William has passionate dreams to connect this historic place to an even wider public. Stay tuned.

From the Dvořák house up to the castle parking area is a drive of about a minute.  One truly enters another world passing through the castle entrance into its stately courtyard.

The castle, which was restituted to the family in 1993, now houses a museum with a permanent exhibition: Private Spaces: A Noble Family at Home, which comprises twelve rooms that faithfully show how a noble Bohemian family would have lived in the 19th century.  The museum is open from April through October, and in addition, the Lobkowicz Events company organizes extraordinary conferences, fairs and other celebrations on the property.

That this place is worth a trip to Prague to see goes without saying.  If you throw in the Dvořák house, not to mention Prague itself, you have a destination that competes with any in the world.
I also cannot fail to acknowledge that being taken there by William personally, to hear him talking about his own ancestors in paintings hundreds of years old, and to see him whip out keys that opened every door; well, that was really incomparable.  As awed as one can be in the presence of someone with such lineage, William dispels for his friends any notion of unapproachable royalty. Indeed, he is more like a kid in his playhouse, filled with enthusiasm and fun-filled energy, and deeply inspired by the great art and history around him.

The last stop on the Nelahozeves castle tour was the archive vault, a super-secure, climate controlled area that houses more items than can be readily comprehended.  With great pride, William showed us the manuscript of Vranický’s Violin Concerto in F.  Antonín Vranický was the Kapellmeister to the 7th Prince Lobkowicz and composed this concerto in honor of the Prince’s 18th birthday.  William’s wife Alexandra discovered this concerto last year and had it copied out and rehearsed in secret for William’s own birthday party.  It had not been heard for 321 years!

In spite of a grueling day for William and Alexandra (she had returned in the afternoon from Texas, he had been out all morning at another of the family castles for meetings and had a 7am flight the next morning) the couple graciously invited us to their home to meet their absolutely delightful children, to sample some Lobkowicz wine, and for a bite to eat.  The excited discussions of future projects together went late, and it was Phil and I who finally had to send them off to bed.  As we traveled back to our hotel, all we could speak of was our amazement at this extraordinary family, and of our great luck in knowing them and having experienced so much history of Bohemia through them, first-hand.

Tuesday, May 22

Our second full day was allocated for a morning tour of the Lobkowicz Palace in the Prague Castle, and an afternoon walking tour of Dvořák residences and haunts with David Beveridge.

The Lobkowicz Palace is the only privately-owned property within the Prague Castle walls. It sits at the lower end of the castle area, which, as a travel author said, spreads its wings on the hilltop. The Lobkowicz Palace is the beige building, the last on the right adjoining the tower.

While the entrance to the Palace is modest, the interior becomes more and more spectacular as one ascends the staircase, to the sound of William’s welcoming voice on the audio guide.  After touring portrait rooms which lay out the family’s extraordinary history, and passing through rooms devoted to sets of the family’s china going back 500 years, one comes to the small room that holds a very powerful music collection.  Philip gazed through the glass at the first performance parts of Beethoven’s Op. 18 quartets, the score to the Eroica Symphony, the score to the 5th Symphony, and Haydn’s Quartets Op. 77 – all commissioned by the 7th Prince.

I had the feeling that I was not supposed to take pictures but I couldn’t help myself.  Perhaps I will be forgiven.

At 1pm there was a well-attended chamber music concert in a lovely room.  Gazing over the performers from behind is a portrait of the 7th Prince himself.

The view out over Prague is stunning.  This photo is from the balcony of the Palace restaurant, where we were joined for lunch by Alexandra Lobkowicz and Director of Communications and Membership Mary Masri.

I cannot recommend more to visit Prague and to visit these extraordinary Lobkowicz properties and collections. Their website, which is wonderful, is www.lobkowicz.cz, and there you can also become a member and receive newsletters.  Of current interest is the journey to London of one of the family paintings by Canaletto, of the Lord Mayor’s Day on the Thames.  Read all about it on their web site.

Rushing off to meet David Beveridge, we connected at our hotel and immediately set out on foot for the nearby Nádražý train station which was one of Dvořák’s favorite places to hang out. He loved trains and was something of what we call today a train-spotter, keeping records of which locomotives dragged which trains to where on a daily basis. It was while waiting for a friend at this station that the main theme came to him for the 7th Symphony.

When Dvořák was still a boy in Nelahozeves, the train tracks were laid down just steps from his house. It must have been very exciting.  It is likely that Dvořák arrived in Prague in this station for the first time, as it is from here that the trains to and from Nelahozeves have always operated. Below is a photo of the station in 1908, only four years after Dvořák’s death.

It is also well documented that Dvořák loved birds, especially exotic pigeons, and kept a large collection of them at his country house.  I also explored this habit of the great composer, to a limited degree.

We then headed off to five Dvořák residences, all within 30 minutes walking distance of each other. David Beveridge proved the ideal tour guide, not only planning the walk for us efficiently, but knowing all of the places (only one, his final home on the Zitna, is marked) and on top of that knowing the years he lived in each, which pieces he composed where, who visited him, and even which windows belonged to him.  In this, his first residence around the corner from the Organ School which was his first higher music education, his windows were the ones directly above the doorway.

Next, we stopped at the National Theater, where Dvořák spent nine years as principal violist of the orchestra.  It was there that he first met and played under the composer and conductor Bedrich Smetana, widely considered to be the father of nationalist Czech music.

I visited the back entrance where the musicians and stagehands come and go.  I can’t imagine it has changed much since Dvořák’s day.

Our next to last stop was perhaps the most dramatic.  It was the great composer’s final residence, a building within which he moved at least twice, once from back to front, and then from laterally  from side of the building to the other. Unbelievably, the Dvořák family’s first quarters here were at the back of the alley, behind the two ground floor windows.

When he moved to the front, he used the staircase behind this door.

The front of the house displays a modest bust of the composer.  His windows were on the third floor above the street, the so-called second floor in European terminology.  Behind the three windows on the left, he composed the Trio in f minor, and behind the three on the right, the “Dumky” Trio.

We owe David Beveridge all the thanks possible for an extraordinary, custom-designed tour.  We were truly privileged to have experienced Dvořák’s Prague with David as our guide.

Over a late dinner, Phil and I recalled the extraordinary events of the past two days, both of us struggling to believe that we had actually experienced so much in such a short time.

Down the road, the incredible riches of Bohemia are sure to manifest themselves in our programming, our teaching, and of course in our music-making. This kind of immersion, even for mature musicians such as Phil and I, serves to remind how much still awaits discovery, and how the road to musical enlightenment is both endless and inspiring.

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Photo taken January 18, 2012 after an ESQ performance in Lyon, France.

On Tuesday, February 14th, it was announced that David Finckel would be be leaving the the Emerson Quartet at the end of the 2012-2013 season after more than thirty remarkable years.  In this special blog post, David recounts his decision and discusses his thoughts on the Emerson Quartet and his own future.

In David’s words

During the past year, after much soul-searching, I came to the realization that it would be sensible to make the 2012-13 season my last in the Emerson Quartet.  My colleagues of 33 years have been extremely understanding of my desire to pursue, with greater energy, my increasing number of performing, educational and presenting commitments that are independent of the quartet. My heart is warmed by the knowledge that Paul Watkins’ enormous gifts as a cellist and musician will fuel the Emerson’s onward journey with vibrant energy and fresh perspectives. I could not be happier to see him take my chair, nor can I wait to hear how marvelous the quartet will sound in its new incarnation. While I will forever treasure the rich network of friendships and experiences I have enjoyed as a member of the Emerson Quartet, I am equally excited for the opportunities which await me in the next chapter of my artistic and professional life.

I owe the bulk of my musical education to the Emerson Quartet, not only through the experience of learning so many great works, but also from the quartet’s rigorous pursuit of fidelity to each composer’s style. The Emerson’s unflagging commitment to a 100% effort for every performance, from big cities to small, remains for me the definitive example of being true to one’s art. Each individual in the quartet has always sought a higher level from himself in each successive performance, an expectation which is palpable to audiences and, I believe, has created for the Emerson that sense of perpetual quest which has enticed presenters the world over to bring the quartet back again and again.

The Emerson’s idea to perpetuate itself – a decision that was made by Philip, Eugene and Larry –I think is logical and tremendously exciting.  It makes sense to view the work we have done over the last three decades as having significance and purpose larger than any of us as individuals.  The Emerson’s accomplishments can not only be celebrated, but built upon. With the help of new personnel equally committed to the ideals that has built the quartet’s reputation, the quartet can be sustained and continue its artistic development.

The principles of performance practice which we inherited from our mentors are responsible for the Emerson’s successes across a wide range of music.  I believe our adherence to those artistic values account for the quartet’s appeal to the vast majority of listeners worldwide.  Pursuing innovation while remaining faithful to the composer, and holding ourselves to the instrumental standards set by the greatest players of all time, constitutes the Emerson’s artistic journey. It is a musical path with no end in sight.

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On the 21st anniversary of one of its artistic milestones, the Emerson Quartet returned to Ludwigshafen, Germany, at the end of a European tour, to celebrate its historic performance and recording of the Schubert Cello Quintet with Mstislav Rostropovich.  Joining the quartet on this occasion was the phenomenal young German cellist Nicolas Altstaedt.

In David’s words

Few experiences in the Emerson Quartet’s exciting career have left as deep a mark on us, both personally and musically, as the four days we spent in wintery Ludwigshafen (near Mannheim) and nearby Speyer, with my teacher and mentor, Rostropovich.

Rostropovich, who sadly passed away in 2007 at the age of 80, was the biggest influence on me as a cellist, by miles. He also set for me an example for living, an attitude about performing, and other priorities larger than music. One of the last century’s notable humanitarians, his courageous stand for artistic freedom in the Soviet Union is viewed by many as one of the significant nails in the communist regime coffin.  His contribution to the cello literature – over 200 works composed for him, many by the greatest composers of his age – is unparalleled by any performer in history, of any instrument. I could go on and on, but suffice to finish this small tribute by saying that he was a great human being who gave to the world beyond measure.

The story of that concert, and the recording, is one of personal determination on the quartet’s part, and of generosity and faith on the part of our concert sponsor, the BASF Corporation of Ludwigshafen.  The company recently celebrated the 90th anniversary of its extensive cultural activities, which have been performed on a level of commitment, depth and consistency beyond any corporate arts support I have ever known.

with Dr. and Mrs. Böckmann and Nicolas Altstaedt

At the time of the Rostropovich project, we had a close relationship with the company’s director of culture, Detlef Böckmann, and we were able to convince him that BASF was the proper place to base the project, which would of course involve learning the work with Rostropovich, performing a concert, and making the recording for Deutsche Grammophon.  We made a special journey to the area to audition recording sites, and selected the beautiful Dreifaltigkeitskirche (Holy Trinity Church) in the nearby town of Speyer. The church was built during the Baroque era and the interior is entirely of wood, with gorgeous acoustics.

Arriving in snowy December, we first encountered Rostropovich in the church.  He showed up without a part to the Schubert (I had brought one just in case) and with his cello strings each at least a half step out of tune. When I expressed amazement at this he explained that he had had the cello specially prepared (I’m not sure what this meant) in order to get the most resonant  pizzicati from it for the famous slow movement. (This cello was the “Duport” Stradivari, which he had acquired shortly after he left the Soviet Union in 1974. It was commissioned in 1711 by a wealthy doctor from Lyon who paid Stradivari twice his normal fee for a cello of unusual quality.  It went into the hands of the famous Duport brother who played the premiere of Beethoven’s Sonatas Op. 5 Nos. 1 and 2 in Berlin at the court of King Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia, with Beethoven at the piano. I have since heard that the cello was sold to a collector in Japan, and to my knowledge, no one has seen it since. I did get to play on it quite a bit, though, and soon after I revisited it in Washington with Sam Zygmuntowicz, who copied it when making the cello that I have played since 1993).

The “Duport” Stradivari cello of 1711

The rehearsal was amazing. Slava, for the first run through, seemed to be half-lost and confused about everything, from the bowings to the counting to the page turns.  After we finished the movement, he berated me for not having given him my bowings. We were all speechless.  What do you say when the greatest cellist the world has ever known demands your bowings?

As the rehearsal progressed, things changed.  The next run through was on another level, and soon, we were left in the musical dust as Slava took command of everything, summoning up metaphors, noticing details in the composition, stopping for detailed work, exhorting us to do more of just about everything we thought we were already doing.  It was like being dragged by a freight train. It was exciting, exhausting, and unnerving to be playing with someone who could hear so acutely, whose understanding of the music was so deep, and whose charisma was so overpowering.  We knew exactly how the rest of the week was going to play out.

Listening to playbacks with Slava and producer Chris Alder

The recording sessions went extremely well, up to a point. Slava had seemingly limitless energy and needed almost no sleep. We were lavishly entertained, stayed up late tasting wines, eating way too much food, laughing our heads off at his amazing stories.  This was fine for the most part except that, having retired usually around 2 a.m., our hotel phone would ring at 5:30 or 6:00 a.m., Slava demanding that we join him for breakfast.  This happened every day.

The straw that broke the Emerson’s back was the lunch for us thrown by the mayor of Speyer. After a 3 hour meal of heavy German food, speeches and gallons of beer, we went back across the street to the church to record the slow movement.  It did not feel good. As we listened to only the first minutes of the playback, Slava suddenly called a halt and commanded that we all go back to the hotel for naps.  He simply said the sound was not right.  We did as he instructed, of course, and agreed to return in the evening, after dark. There was no arguing with Slava.

When we arrived back at the church, the snow was falling heavily.  The little town was dead quiet. The scene was every bit as magical as the music itself, and the recording of the slow movement was accomplished that evening in an atmosphere so rarefied as to truly be called incomparable.

It was extremely exciting to return to the place where we had given our one performance of the Schubert with Slava so many years ago.  Of all the people I remembered from the previous time, only Detlef Böckmann and his wife were still there. The majestic Feierabend Haus, the BASF concert hall, has been remodeled and seems brand new, the building itself having undergone extensive renovation. The BASF hospitality is still present, though, with the company’s current cultural director, Klaus Phillipp Seif, presiding over everything from backstage logistics to the beautiful dinner that followed.

with Dr. and Mrs. Seif

For this concert we were joined in the Schubert by the young German cellist Nicolas Altstaedt. Nicolas became known to me several years ago when he journeyed to New York to audition for the Chamber Music Society’s CMS Two program.  Nicolas was admitted to the program and has since played many concerts in New York and on tour, including the Society’s recent visits to London’s Wigmore Hall and the AlpenKlassik Festival in Bad Reichenhall.  It was a pleasure to make music with this enormously gifted and charismatic young cellist, who is part of the legion of European cellists which is setting the highest standards today in cello playing (among them, I am happy to say, are CMS Two’s other two European cellists, Andreas Brantelid and Jakob Koranyi).

Even though it was to be a long day (driving from Zug, Switzerland, to Zurich Airport, returning a rental car, flying to Frankfurt, renting another car, getting stuck in traffic) I still managed to find the time, and energy, to drive the extra distance to Speyer, directly from the airport, to revisit the church where the recording was made.  Although the church was closed on Mondays, I corresponded directly by email (while stuck in traffic) with the pastor, Christine Gölzer, who encouraged me to try my luck by knocking on the housekeeper’s door.  This I did, and it worked.  I was able to spend only about twenty minutes inside, but what wonderful memories came to the surface.  A video of my reunion with this beautiful space, where once I had one of the most wonderful experiences of my life, can be found below:

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When the great luthier René Morel passed away on Wednesday, it was immediately mentioned among us in the Emerson Quartet that an era had ended. This is a comment that I am sure finds resonance in the thoughts of others who knew René and were privileged to have been under his care. But just what constituted the era of René? What did he do that was so definitive and unique that he seems to have taken it with him?

Those of us lucky to have become professional string players likely remember our first visits to violin shops. Wherever they are, big or small, famous or obscure, they possess a certain magic. There is the usual presence of a multitude of instruments, some exuding age, distinction and fabulous pedigree and value. There’s that wonderful smell of varnish and glue in the air. There’s sometimes the chance that a famous musician will just walk in right next to you. And very importantly, there is the presence of the experts and craftsmen who learned their art in time-honored ways not found in universities or online courses. What they know, you cannot just learn if you want by looking it up in a book or taking a course somewhere. It is often a lifetime of study, apprenticeship, dedication, and for the chosen few, the gaining of an artistry that goes beyond skilled craft and factual knowledge.

René Morel epitomized all that goes into the makeup of a master luthier. I first encountered him as a star-struck teenager, having been taken to the shop of Rembert Wurlitzer. I can’t even remember what I needed there – maybe it was just a string – but all the magic I spoke of took hold of me in a very powerful way. The personnel in the front – Ken Jacobs I remember well – had a cordial yet intimidating air, but when, for some reason, the people who actually did the work, like René, were summoned out of the workshop, the room stood still in their presences. Along with the magnetic and vital René was the sage-like Dario D’Attili, who was revered for his encyclopedic knowledge and ability to perform miracles of pedigree confirmation.

Some years later, as a freshman student at the Manhattan School of Music, I was thrilled beyond measure to find out that René was teaching a course in violin repair, and that I was eligible. I couldn’t believe it, and I actually still don’t understand how he found the time, energy or even the interest to share his consummate skills with a bunch of conservatory students whose skills in instrument repairs barely were enough to change a string. René, however, took the whole thing very seriously, as though he was training the descendants of Stradivari. We had to buy tools: sound post setters, clamps, rulers. We were sent down to the West Village to a paint shop to buy exotic ingredients for varnish. I had an alcohol lamp, and pretty soon I could make my little apartment smell like Wurlitzer’s. Damn! I thought, this is just out-of-sight, to good to be true. I worshipped René, hung on his every word, and got totally caught up in the incredible world he was opening to us. (I was so caught up that I actually managed to leave my cello once in the aisle of the paint shop, not discovering it was missing until I arrived home at 215th street. I have never since driven so fast down the West Side Highway).

It was not far in to the course, which took place in the late afternoon, that I learned that after class René took the subway down to the Port Authority to catch a bus to his home town in New Jersey. As I owned a car, I spied an opportunity, and offered to drive him down to 42nd street after a class in my ’54 Chevy. And that quickly became EVERY class, as I was thrilled to have him in my car, paying attention to me alone, hearing his stories and anecdotes and answering my special questions. Wow, was I lucky.

Our friendship continued through my evolution as a performer. I had learned through René’s class the importance of a good sound post adjustment, and of a good setup. It was not until then that I even realized what a major component of a string player’s life instrument adjustments could become. I began taking my cellos to René at Jacques Francais’ shop like any other customer. And, probably unlike with most of his clients, René continued to be my teacher: “What do you hear when you play?” he would ask, never allowing me to simply let him fix it, pay and go. His dedication to me as a student was permanent, and felt truly blessed.

And here I have finally arrived at the question I posed at the start of this story: what was it about René that was special, irreplaceable, and of inestimable value? There are many things.

First, of course, was his ear. He could hear like an owl. He not only heard the quality of an instrument (which he would remember as clearly as we remember peoples’ faces) but also was able to perceive the amount of effort that it took for us to produce the sound. It was from him that I first clearly understood the importance of the instrument’s mechanics, and that if it was simply out of adjustment, it was not much different than having a bad spark plug or loose steering mechanism in your car. But the miracle of his ear, and his ability to judge, was that his analyses diagnoses could be performed through scientific testing. He just knew, from his vast experience and incredible gift, what to do.

The next thing I learned from René was how tricky it is to know how your instrument actually sounds in the concert hall. Most people – instrumentalists and I have to say luthiers – give it their best guess. René knew. He really knew, and he knew it so well that those of us under the most pressure, playing the greatest instruments in the world’s greatest halls, competing with the most powerful orchestras, depended on René to make sure that when the critical performance came, our instruments were at their peak.

He proved he could do it, over and over again. No one in his lifetime – even he was totally open to explaining how he did what he did – ever came remotely close. It was not unusual to find musicians in Francais’ shop who had come all the way from Europe or the Far East just to have René move their sound post. That is truly a one-of-a-kind legacy.

A “René adjustment” is a phrase that will live on forever. Those of us who had them know exactly what one is. First, it is when your instrument sounds its best, when the sound is full of color, but also that the notes on every string have “core”, a word René used all the time and stressed the importance of. Second, it is when your instrument functions perfectly, when the strings speak immediately and the sound sparkles. Third, the instrument has to resonate, so a balance needs to be found between clarity, focus and “cushion”, another word heard often in his adjusting room. A René adjustment always extracts the maximum potential of an instrument, and also has staying power. It was rare that anyone returned for a follow-up, which usually only happened in the event of severe and unexpected weather change. René knew how to adjust for the future, and for where you were headed, and he was, in my experience, always correct.

Another aspect of the René experience that should be pointed out was his understanding of sound production technique. As discreet as René was with his customers, he clearly knew if problems were caused not by the instrument but by the player. René was blessed with the best clientele in the world; he heard and worked with the greatest players of his day, on a daily basis. His point of reference was unmatchable. He probably could have been one heck of a string teacher, but he held his opinions mostly in check, sometimes only barely alluding to the idea that perhaps your instrument was not the culprit.

The most valuable lesson I learned from this last point is that ultimately, even with the benefit of René adjustment, it would do you little good unless you yourself adjusted to the instrument, and not the other way around. This is a hard-line, no nonsense approach to playing, devoid of mystique, and with little credence given to personal intrigue or complex relationships between player and instrument. I was always the most comfortable if I thought René was adjusting my cello not for me, but for the greatest cellists he had ever heard. It was my job as a player to measure up, after he gave me the best tools to work with.

So the end result of a visit to René was coming away with an instrument that you knew would sound great, but only if you played it at the level at which it was adjusted. It was for me, and I’m sure for others, sometimes a challenge, a reach. But it was an incredible part of my education as a musician and a player, given to me by a single individual, for which I am eternally grateful.

It would not be right to omit the immense warmth of René from my list of accolades. That he treated musicians like me, from day one, with respect and friendliness was always appreciated, and was in stark contrast with others in his profession who took years to acknowledge younger, lesser-known players, as clients of worth.

I’m happy that so many had the benefit of his guidance. The whole world of music sounds better for our having had René among us. Not only his work, but our expectations of our instruments and ourselves, live on.

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