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Artist Interview: Cellist Paul Watkins, Emerson String Quartet

Photo: Emerson String Quartet. Photo by Lisa Marie Mazzucco.

The Emerson String Quartet returns to Ann Arbor on October 5, 2017 to perform with Calidore String Quartet.

Cellist Paul Watkins joined the quartet in May 2013. UMS Lobby contributor and composer Garrett Schumann chatted with Paul about what it’s like to join the quartet, his British sense of humor, and his role as artistic director at the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival.

Garrett: You joined Emerson Quartet during the 2013-2014 season. We often hear about the demands of precision and cohesion that string quartets require. What has the process of assimilating you, a new voice, into the Emerson Quartet been like?

Paul: Well, you know, it has its challenges because I’m coming into a group of guys that’s worked together for the last 37 years. And in fact, in the case of Phil [Setzer, violin] and Gene [Drucker, violin], they’ve known each other and each other’s playing since they were college students, going back more than forty years. There’s a degree of responsiveness that they have to each other which I have to catch up with. But luckily when we played together for the first time, I think we all felt a very natural and quick connection in our styles of playing. Good basics to work from. But we’ve had to rehearse a lot over the last year, probably more than the quartet was used to.

Garrett: I saw that the press release announcing your joining the group noted your vibrant sense of humor.

Paul: Ah! Did it! Good.

Garrett: I’m wondering what you have to say about that. Do you think that part of your personality had any specific implications in your first season with the group, or is there any particularly funny anecdote from your first season that would match the expectations that were built by that press release?

Paul: [Laughs] That’s very interesting. I think all three of the guys in the quartet apart from myself have got very highly developed senses of humor. So you know, we fool around in rehearsals. Maybe the subject of a lot of our jokes in our first year has been the difference between British English and American English. One thing that comes to mind, too, is just before I gave my first official concert with the quartet, they gave me a little spoof “welcome” pack, which had various characteristics of the individuals in the quartet, slightly exaggerated. It’s been quite funny for me to discover that pretty much all of the things that were there are absolutely true. [Laughs]

Behind the scenes with Emerson String Quartet:

Garrett: [Laughs] So, the program that you’ll be performing at UMS has Beethoven and Shostakovich and also has the new piece by Liebermann that was a UMS co-commission. Could you talk about the process of creating a program with the quartet? What are the things that you discussed and thought about when you designed it?

Paul: I think for a lot of quartets that have been together for a long time, each individual member of the quartet tends to have a different role. And in our quartet, Philip has a lot of responsibility for programming, it’s something that he loves doing. He really relishes the prospect of putting together different pieces and relating composers to each other within a program or within a concert series. While he does the lion’s share of that work, we other three have a lot of input as far as that’s concerned.

Since I joined the quartet, I’ve also shared the repertoire that I’m particularly interested in. For me, Beethoven string quartets are still really the towering achievement in string quartet literature. Nothing’s equaled or surpassed them since he wrote them. My top priority personally was to explore as many Beethoven string quartets as soon as possible with the Emerson.

Garrett: How do you think Ann Arbor audiences will feel about this program with its mixture of very traditional Beethoven and Shostakovich and also this new piece, which none of us will have heard of course?

Paul: Exactly. We haven’t heard it yet! It’s nearly ready. As with a lot of composers, they write very close to deadline, but we’re expecting it to arrive really any day now, so that we could start working on it over the summer. Lowell Liebermann is a very lyrical composer…I’m not sure! I’m nervous to commit to anything in particular about the piece because I’m not sure what kind of piece he is going to write! In a way that’s a kind of surprise.

Garrett: I’m a composer myself so I understand your hesitance to commit anything because who knows! Well, your other big news in addition to the Emerson String Quartet is your new position with the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival.

Paul: Indeed! I’m very excited about that.

Garrett: What attracted you to that position? 

Paul: Actually, in a couple of hours, I’ll go to Detroit because it’ll be the opening of the 2014 festival. The Great Lakes Festival has a very strong personal connection for me because Detroit is the home town of my late mother-in-law Ruth Laredo, who was a very distinguished American pianist and a wonderful lady and a powerful influence on me and many other people.

Her sister still lives there, so they’re a great family connection. She was also a great friend and artistic companion to James Tocco when he founded the festival twenty years ago with his brother.

There’s also a wonderful team of people working for that festival, and it seems that it has a very unique and welcoming atmosphere. This all made me think that working for the festival would be a great challenge but also a great sort of privilege. It’s the first time that I’ve been an artistic director of a major chamber music festival, so I’m very excited to see that work put into practice.

Garrett: What are you thinking about programming, what’s coming up for the festival now that you’re starting your position in August?

As far as programming is concerned, I think what James Tocco has done over the last twenty is very, very good. I want to take that all and develop it. Because I have a British and European background, I want to encourage much more collaboration and cross-pollination between American and European artists. In 2015, we’re going to call it “Coming to America,” which is essentially a kind of short hand for my personal experience of moving to America as a European musician, but also for American composers who have been influenced by Europe, and vice versa.

The opening concerts of the 2015 festival are also going to feature the Emerson String Quartet. That’s an opportunity for me to bring my new friends at the quartet to meet my new friends in Detroit and get things off to a really exciting start.

Garrett: That sounds wonderful. Michigan has a lot of great musicians, composers, and a lot of excited people to hear it. We can’t wait to experience the festival next year.

The Emerson String Quartet performs in Ann Arbor on October 5, 2017.

Updated 7/10/17