How the Emersons’ cellist saved my musical life

How the Emersons’ cellist saved my musical life


norman lebrecht

January 27, 2023

Here’s a wonderfully revealing reflection on America’s doyen string quartet by our occasional diarist, Anthea Kreston.

Some people, well, actually, a lot of people, think you can’t do it all. That you will fail (assuming that’s actually a bad thing), embarrass yourself (ditto above), and it will backfire and ruin the perfectly fine (but possibly unfulfilling) thing you already had.

I guess David Finckel, the cellist of the Emerson String Quartet from 1979-2013, is just about as opposite to the above description as humanly possible.

I first stumbled into viola as a 9 year old – my oldest sister (age 17) was playing an actual, paid concert, and to round out the program, the idea was floated to play the Mozart G Minor piano quartet, with my mother (a very fine pianist) and my next older sister on cello (age 13). It would be charming, and, actually, probably pretty good. The problem was that viola part. And the family solution was to have me figure out how to play viola – which I did, without any (to my memory) problem at all. I was already a pretty spicy, confident player, fearless, I guess I would say.

Not too long ago, I saw that original, blue-ish, mimeographed music (remember the machines with the big roller – you had to turn a crank to copy the single sheet of paper, which was transferred to a quite shiny piece of bluish-purplish, somewhat floppy piece of paper that smelled kindof sickeningly sweet and also of chemicals?) It was covered with about a zillion big sloppy zeros, and a half zillion 2’s and 3’s. 4th finger? That was emergency use only.

And so, I became one of those violinist who could whip out the viola if needed – you know the ones who never had a viola lesson in their lives, didn’t know the names of the notes, but enjoyed the occasional romp if an interesting opportunity presented itself.

The Avalon Quartet happened upon me one afternoon in Cleveland. I was right in the middle of a delightful identity crisis – a graduate from Curtis, burned out and not even passionate enough to be bitter about classical music. It was So Last Year. I was getting a Women’s Studies Degree, playing electric violin in an all-girl band, and had a place in a pretty unsavory area of town. I was living the dream – floating from party to party, getting a tattoo, shaving my head, basically enjoying saying yes to everything that a person who is training for a career in classical music never even dreams of saying yes to. It was absolutely grand.

One day a string popped, and I wandered into the Cleveland Institute of Music because I heard they had a little instrument supply store in the basement. As I was leaving, someone tentatively called out my name. I turned – it was Nicole Johnson, a fabulous cellist from my youth, daughter of Mark Johnson of the Vermeer Quartet, and apparently a student at CIM. She struck me as very clean, even possibly freshly showered, a stark contrast to my current circle of acquaintances. She had a bit of trouble recognizing me in my floor-length kilt, black army boots, tshirt and (mostly) shaved head. But she said – hey – my quartet is looking for a violist to go to the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival this summer to study with the Tokyo Quartet. I took her number – my band had a full summer of gigs in disgusting bars that I was really looking forward to, but I said I would think on it.

The long and short of it is that I did think on it, did join the quartet, and fell in love with music like I had never fallen before. It was like an entirely new thing – it was music without the stress, without a boss, and with just the best tunes in the world. I quit my band when I got back to Cleveland, and threw myself in to the quartet, as a violist – all the fun but none of the worry.

Yada Yada Yada – 4 years later, after Aspen, the competitions, the first paid concerts. I was struggling to still hold on to violin – taking every opportunity to play – even starting a piano trio – and meeting resistance from my colleagues and many others – I was a violist in their eyes, and why didn’t I just accept that and move on.

It was David Finckel and Wu Han who encouraged me to be whoever I wanted to be. They invited both my quartet and trio to be student resident groups at La Jolla – they mentored me as both a violinist and a violist – as a trio member and quartet member, and gave us our first trio manager after that summer. They are a power couple – at every moment, bursting at the seams with creativity, energy and idealistic passion. And they not only showed me that I can chase any dream I have, no matter how unrealistic, but how to enjoy the process and create my own career.

Each member of the Emerson Quartet leads by example – each has a vibrant and compelling life outside of quartet, which I believe is a fundamental ingredient to their success. The inspiration and joy they find outside quartet – those special ingredients are kneaded back into the quartet dough, creating an ever-changing sound and concept. In David’s case, his outside work includes his amazing cello/piano duo with Wu Han, running the LaJolla Music Festival (and later starting Music@Menlo, which they continue to run), producing Cello Talks, a piano trio with Phil Setzer, a record label – ArtistLead – and running, with Wu Han, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. He and WuHan have an amazing apartment in Manhattan, with an equally amazing, twin apartment across the hallway which is their office space – fully staffed. They move effortlessly from home to work – it’s a bee hive of activity. I remember one Christmas receiving a glass jar of homemade mixed nuts from David – on the side, a label read “Davids Nuts”. It’s his special, exclusive winter gift, and he said you can interpret the title in a variety of ways, all of which are true.

Through their guidance, I learned how to pitch a proposal, present myself appropriately for any occasion, put on a dazzling show, and flow through failure.

I am eternally grateful.


  • olivia nordstadt says:

    a lovely tribute. i would just disagree that the emersons – whatever their numerous and extraordinary merits – is the doyen of american string quartets. i believe that honor goes now, as it has for many years, to the juiliard quartet/

  • E Rand says:

    Both David Finckel and Wu Han are extraordinary people blessed with supernatural energy and a kind of holy commitment to chamber music and the preservation of the art. Bless them.

  • Robert Holmén says:

    So what happened to the all-girl band after you quit?

    • Anthea Kreston says:

      Haha. Probably still going! It was a lot of fun, and the perfect release from such intensity of purpose before that.

  • Soprano Clef says:

    Good grief. Woe is me.

    And how many musicians have the resources for a staffed office on the strength of their earnings alone and playing chamber music. This doesn’t add up.

    This is as out of touch as ‘Friends’.


    The comment about the Juilliard quartet would depend on the era and to some extent the concert. At times, they’ve been horrendous.