June 7, Port Vendres, France
Almost a month has passed since I played my final concert as cellist of the Emerson String Quartet after a run of 34 years. The week leading up to that pivotal event was a dense montage of activities typical of my lifestyle of years past: quartet concerts in Carnegie Hall and Buffalo; a live studio performance at WNYC's Greene Space with colleagues Paul Neubauer and Colin Carr; a benefit for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in which the Emerson was honored; rehearsals with incoming cellist Paul Watkins for the Schubert Cello Quintet; numerous meetings in diverse artistic director roles; lessons for my Juilliard students and more. At the week's conclusion, we journeyed to Washington's Smithsonian Institution for the quartet's final concert together.
Within forty-eight hours of our incandescent, joyful rendition of the Schubert Cello Quintet, I performed a piano trio concert in for the Music@Menlo Winter Series in California, hurried to catch a flight to Korea, where I taught and performed for the LG Chamber Music School in conjunction with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. As momentous an occasion as my final Emerson quartet concert was, the event was thrust into a sequence of performances and other commitments that hardly allowed adequate time for reflection.
A Mediterranean cruise, performing for patrons of both Music@Menlo and the Chamber Music Society, is finally affording me some perspective. Moments ago, as our ship pulled out of the Côte d'Azur harbor of Port Vendres, bound for Spain, I asked my daughter how I might begin to describe my new post-quartet life. And she wisely answered that it was far too soon for me to know how I would feel down the road, and that I should begin with the present.
The actual leave-taking was pretty wrenching. A last and final concert was unavoidable, and it was like quitting cold turkey, especially in light of our busy schedule leading up that evening in Washington, DC.. After thousands of concerts, incalculable hours of rehearsals, unforgettable meals, joke-telling and schlepping; one moment I was in, and the next I was out. For over three decades, I have not missed a single season without performing the great string quartet masterpieces with my colleagues. In truth, I have barely begun to understand how leaving the quartet -- the literature, my three colleagues and Emerson venues and friends all over the world -- will affect me.
Of course I am getting some immediate relief. I made it to the end of my quartet career in one piece, and I'm finally free of the quartet "business" that involves endless planning of programs, rehearsals and travel. I no longer have to prepare the often fiendishly difficult quartet cello parts, which took up a great deal of my practice time. I won't have so many predawn journeys to the airport to catch concerts in Vienna, Austria or Wooster, Ohio (venues held equally dear in my heart, by the way). How will I feel, though, in six months? Only time will tell.
But there is excitement in the air. From our home in New York, on May 30 at exactly eight in the evening, my wife Wu Han and I toasted the "new" Emerson Quartet as they walked on stage for their first concert together in Montreal. Two days later, departing for this voyage from Nice to Barcelona, I carried with me the score of Benjamin Britten's monumental Cello Symphony, which I will perform for the first time at the Aspen Music Festival on July 28. While at the festival, Wu Han and I will inaugurate a new chamber music program. Soon after I'll immerse myself into another extraordinary Music@Menlo season, this year dedicated to Bach. As the Emerson Quartet and I depart on separate paths, we still share the excitement of new challenges and discoveries in this endlessly wonderful world of classical music.