Saturday 11 October 2014

David Watkin leaves the SCO

He plays with such huge commitment. He is a great inspiration to me, especially in Mozart.

I can't claim credit for those words, instead they belong to the late, great Sir Charles Mackerras, but I thoroughly endorse them and am greatly saddened to learn today that David Watkin, principal cello of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, is leaving the ensemble.

When Watkin joined the SCO around 10 years ago, Mackerras would have already known him from his time as principal cello of both the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Philharmonia. At the same time. This hints straight away at his versatility: he is equally at home with a period cello as with a modern one. And it doesn't end there: during his tenure we've heard him direct the orchestra from the cello in Mozart; he has performed Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time; he has been the soloist for concertos and Bach cello suites; and he has done the double of leading the cellos while also undertaking the continuo during performances of Mozart operas. And that's to say nothing of his recordings with the Eroica Quartet, the most recent of which have been fine discs of Mendelssohn's Octet and a pairing of Debussy and Ravel.

Mackerras and the SCO in action in Mozart's Haffner symphony

But it is not so much the technical quality of his playing that really endears Watkin to me. Or at least, not exclusively so. I find him an extremely charismatic performer, someone who is every bit as much a joy to watch play as he is to listen to. To illustrate, some quotes from blog posts gone by (not the easiest task to find, since a quick search showed I mention him often in my reviews).

The orchestra played superbly - some wonderful pizzicato work, especially from principal cellist David Watkin, who surely has the most enthusiastic technique around.

(Taken from a review of Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste)

This was a perfect choice for the SCO, limited as it was to one player per part, thus providing a wonderful showcase for the orchestra's many excellent principals, especially David Watkin on cello (virtually dancing in his seat at times)

(Taken from a review of John Adams' Son of Chamber Symphony)

The second movement stood out especially, not least for principal cello David Watkin's contribution: the drama and force with which he played at times almost rendered the basses moot, not to mention the elan of his pizzicato playing (he might as well have been playing alone, though he managed to do so in a way that didn't seem out of place).

(Taken from a review of Mahler's orchestration of Schubert's Death and the Maiden Quartet)

David Watkin, principal cellist, hunched forward like a driver with his nose to the windscreen, intent on missing nothing.

(Taken from a review of an all Mozart programme, including the Prague symphony, under Charles Mackerras)

I would love, at this point, to wish him all the best at his new orchestra and congratulate that city's lucky residents on their good fortune (albeit with a degree of envy). Alas, I cannot. Unfortunately, Watkin is the second SCO principal in recent years to depart for medical reasons (following former leader Christopher George). As Watkin writes in the most recent SCO newsletter:

Dear Friends,

This time last year I started getting symptoms in my hands. In November I was eventually diagnosed with scleroderma, a non-infectious disease of the immune system, similar to rheumatoid arthritis, affecting the tissues in my hands. They don't know what triggers it, there are no cures for it and it is typically chronic. The doctors treating me are pleased that it is still very mild, and its progress has been slow. But it still prevents me from playing the cello. I very much hope that one day I'll be able to play again. But I have to face the fact that, if I am, it is going to be years rather than months. So, with deep regret I have to resign from the orchestra.

On a more positive note, it is giving me the chance to finally focus on conducting, something I have been slowly developing over recent years. I spent seven weeks at Glyndebourne this summer assisting Robin Ticciati. I miss playing the cello, and I miss being part of the SCO. I miss being part of the most wonderful cello section, and I will miss being a part of the SCO's amazing journey with Robin. Their wonderful Edinburgh International Festival concert made me proud to have been part of our Schumann cycle, also of the Berlioz we have done, and Sir Charles' Mozart. I am incredibly grateful for all the support I have had, and that the orchestra waited so long to give me a chance to get back to playing.

Thank you for your patience and generosity, and best wishes for the future,


And he is right, we still have a wonderful orchestra in the SCO, and a wonderful cello section with the likes of Su-a Lee and Eric De Wit. And if the world gains a conductor, that is some compensation. His first steps in that field, from the direction of the Mozart mentioned above, to a fine concert I heard him conduct with the Meadows Chamber Orchestra a few years ago, have impressed me and certainly the SCO and others could do an awful lot worse than have him back on the podium.

But none of that makes it the less sad. As I wrote a few years ago in response to some overly hyperbolic praise of the admittedly excellent Berlin Philharmonic:

Turn back again to our own Scottish Chamber Orchestra. I regularly sing the praises of principal cellist David Watkin - whose orchestral equal in terms not simply of quality, but also elan and drama, I've yet to find. Put it another way, if you offered to swap out Watkin and others such as flautist Alison Mitchell, clarinetist Maximiliano Martin and bassoonist Peter Whelan for their Berliner Philharmoniker counterparts, exceptionally talented though they are, my reply would honestly be thanks, but no thanks.

Alas, I have no choice. Although hopefully we will be treated to an excellent replacement: after all, Peter Whelan has certainly filled the big shoes that Ursula Leveaux left behind.

Earlier in this post I mentioned a performance of a Bach cello suite (I now regret even more that I missed a concert Watkin gave of three of the suites at Summerhall).

We were treated to David Watkin giving us Bach's second cello suite in D minor BWV 1008 (an extremely pleasant surprise, given it wasn't listed in the season brochure). Regular readers will know I am a great fan of Watkin's playing as the orchestra's principal cellist, and as a soloist he acquitted himself no less well. Playing what seemed to be a period cello, he gave a beautiful and unmannered reading, yet one which did not lack for emotion.

On the plus side, last year he completed a series of recordings of the full set which he was making for Resonus. They are due early next year and I await them keenly. I'm glad he was able to set them down before fate took the cello away from him.

We at Where's Runnicles wish David all the very best. We hope to see him on a podium soon, and that he recovers and is able to play the cello once more.


Lisa Hirsch said...

Damn, I am sorry to read this, and so sorry for his health problem. A huge loss for him, for the orchestra, and for audiences.

The principal cello of SFS, who has held the post for 40 years, missed a large part of a recent season, and I keep expecting a retirement announcement. That'll be a big change, when it happens.

Tam Pollard said...

I had noticed that he'd not been in concerts for a while, but since (for various reasons) I've not been going to such a large proportion of their concerts recently, I assumed I was just unlucky and missing the concerts he was doing. Sadly not.

Hope you don't have something similar with the SFS.

Post a Comment