11/09/2012 01:27 pm ET Updated Jan 08, 2013

The Long Goodbye

Having announced in February that I would be vacating my chair as cellist of the Emerson String Quartet, after a run of 34 years, I had sailed through the rest of the densely-packed 2011-12 winter season, putting off for a future date the heavy thinking that I knew would come into play as my final year of concerts approached. I still had return visits to look forward to in most of the places we appeared, and the phrase "Don't worry, I'll see you next year" was on my lips during countless after-concert encounters with long-time Emerson audience members.

But on that day in Aspen, where the festival had welcomed the Emerson Quartet every summer since 1982, and where the quartet had performed and recorded some its most significant repertoire, I played my last concert as Emerson cellist for the large crowd of listeners, students, and fellow musicians and faculty. The Emerson is an ensemble that has been visible for so long that our four faces have come to represent the quartet's identity. The realization by the festival's organizers and patrons that they had witnessed the quartet for the last time as the world has known it, seemed to have suddenly caught up with them. At the post-concert party, tensely clutching my drink in one hand and my wife's hand in the other, I stood silently as the Festival president paid tribute to the quartet and recognized our years of contributions to the festival, wished me success in my future endeavors, and expressed confidence in the soon-to-come reincarnation of the ensemble. The Emerson, Aspen and I were over just like that, finished forever, and I was listening to the first of many eulogies to come. Tick, tick, tick.

The growing complexity of this long goodbye has brought out my typical reaction in the face of overwhelming circumstances: Analyze it, organize it, and get my head around it. And in doing so, I've realized that my decision to depart from the quartet, although very carefully considered, has created a more multi-faceted life-project than I had fully anticipated.

What am I really leaving? Is it three incredible colleagues, who have inspired, educated and supported me for three decades? Certainly yes, but what about that little roadside stand off the Taconic Parkway where every fall, on my way to South Mountain Concerts in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, I have bought tomatoes? Or is it more the faces in the crowd who have gazed at us year after year, hungry for great string quartet music, who have given their precious time and money to listen to us? What about the intrepid, courageous organizers of concerts all over the world, often unpaid, whose hard work gave us the privilege of playing for their audiences? Without a doubt, the most far-reaching farewell I am making is to the incomparable quartet literature itself. Never again to play the pulsating C natural in the mysterious beginning of Mozart's "Dissonance" quartet; sing the majestic cello solo that opens Beethoven's landmark "Razumovsky" quartet; or present the enigmatic 12 tone row that introduces Shostakovich's twelfth quartet.

After thinking of all that can be easily described (which is barely represented above) there remains that element of what I do that is so viscerally personal that I apologize for lack of a coherent description. But gazing for years in the direction of virtuoso colleagues making music, and playing the role of a world-class ensemble's supporting foundation, have brought thrills that I share with only a privileged few. As my final season unfolds, I'll report back here as moments both anticipated and unexpected continue to make this year unlike any other. Thanks for reading, and for your interest in this pivotal chapter of a musician's life.