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Originally published Sunday, September 30, 2012 at 5:30 AM

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Last chance to see original Emerson String Quartet in Seattle

On Oct. 2, Seattle fans of the Emerson String Quartet will see the original foursome performing at Meany for the last time. In May 2013, cellist David Finckel will leave the Emerson, to be replaced by Paul Watkins.

Special to The Seattle Times

CONCERT PREVIEW

Emerson String Quartet

7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Meany Hall, University of Washington, Seattle; $37-$41 (206-543-4880 or uwworldseries.org).
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This is a bit like if Zeppelin continued to play with a replacement for John Bonham. MORE

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The place to be next May 11 for chamber-music fans is the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

There, the audience in Baird Auditorium will witness a historic change within one of the most celebrated ensembles in the world, when the Emerson String Quartet briefly becomes a quintet with two official cellists.

David Finckel, 60, who joined the ESQ in 1979 and will be leaving at the end of its current season, will play a Schubert piece alongside his replacement, Paul Watkins, 42, and the group's other original members: violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer and violist Lawrence Dutton.

That concert will be Finckel's last with the quartet — the Welsh-born Watkins then steps in permanently. But for now, Finckel and his longtime collaborators are embarking on a new season of international appearances in familiar settings, including a stop on Tuesday at Meany Hall.

"This being David's last season," says Drucker, "it's meaningful to play in these places once more in our original configuration."

The Meany program — this appearance is the quartet's 23rd appearance in the hall — consists of Haydn's String Quartet in D Major, Op. 24, No. 4, Thomas Adès' "The Four Quarters" (commissioned by the Emerson), and Brahms' String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor, Op. 51.

Drucker looks upon the 2012-13 season with mixed emotions.

"It is the end of an era, but we see it very much in forward terms, as a transition to something new in David's life and in our lives. We don't know what the future is going to be exactly. We just know Paul, our new cellist, is the best we could have possibly hoped for."

Finckel told his colleagues before last season he would be leaving to devote time to other endeavors, including his role as co-artistic director (along with his wife, pianist Wu Han) of both the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and Music@Menlo.

That period of adjustment gave the others an opportunity to consider the Emerson's fate. Founded by Drucker and Setzer in 1976 (Dutton joined the following year), the group — which has released more than 30 albums and won nine Grammy Awards — organized around a pure desire to explore, with a distinctive sound, the vast string-quartet repertoire.

"We know a lot about each other, just as members of married couples do," Drucker says. "We know each other's personalities and musical preferences, and we create a synthesis from different sensibilities."

Over the years, Drucker says, the notion of legacy became increasingly important to the ensemble, such as commissioning new music. It was in this spirit the decision to recruit Watkins, younger than the others by almost two decades, was made, thus setting the stage for another generation of the ESQ.

"We all reconsidered our old assumption we would end together," says Drucker. "Instead we decided the Emerson can continue beyond any individual member."

While Watkins has amassed considerable credentials as a soloist, rising conductor and music director of the English Chamber Orchestra, he has not, says Drucker, "focused specifically on string-quartet repertoire."

"He's got a lot of learning ahead, but he's a special, gifted player. The Emerson will sound different because he has a different tone and personality from David. A change will influence the total sound. But I'm hoping this new collaboration for us will be a renewal in artistic energy and sense of purpose. It's not just about a substitute cellist, it's about opening up new vistas."

Tom Keogh: tomwkeogh@gmail.com

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