After Emerson, David Finckel turns the page |

After Emerson, David Finckel turns the page

Alex Irvin
Alex Irvin |

David Finckel is in Aspen, but he’s having what he calls “a New York City day.” He woke up with his fingers “itching to touch the cello,” but there was a morning’s worth of phone calls and emails to attend to. Most urgent was handling a late cancellation; he needed to find a replacement teacher for a workshop later this summer at Music@Menlo, the chamber music institute in northern California that he directs with his wife, pianist Wu Han. There were meetings and lessons with students, drives to the Benedict Music Tent and to the new Bucksbaum Campus, the center of the Aspen Music School up Castle Creek Road. And there was an intense schedule of performances ahead: a concert by his students one afternoon, with a recital that same night; then, the next day, performing a Brahms Piano Quartet. A bit further ahead was an appearance as a soloist with the Aspen Philharmonic Orchestra, for the big Sunday afternoon concert under the Benedict Music Tent.

All that, and Finckel had already removed the biggest item from his plate. In May, in Washington, D.C., Finckel made his last appearance with the Emerson String Quartet, the extraordinarily ambitious group, which he had been part of since 1979.

Finckel said he left the Emerson, which has been in residence at the Aspen Music Festival for decades, to do the sorts of things he didn’t have time for while devoting himself to the quartet. Among those is witnessing a performance of Wagner’s full “Ring” cycle, which Finckel has never seen.

“Damn, I want to do that,” he said over a coffee drink at Justice Snow’s.

Apparently, though, there are items higher up on his to-do list. Topping that list is teaching; Finckel seems to be more interested in preparing students to play Wagner than in hearing Wagner. This past year, he began teaching at Juilliard, which is directly across the street from his apartment on New York’s Upper West Side. Finckel has just one student there, but he sees this as a building block. “I want to develop a great cello class,” Finckel, who also coaches chamber music at Juilliard, said. “Not just great students but a great studio, a great place to learn.”

In Aspen, he might be further along toward that goal. This summer, he and Wu Han started the Finckel-Wu Han Chamber Music Studio, a unique program within the Aspen Music Festival and School. Finckel and Wu Han have been meeting every few days with the 12 students, assembled into four piano trios, enrolled in the program. The sessions can be intense: Along with Finckel and Wu Han, the students are scrutinized and critiqued by a handful of other prominent members of the Aspen Music School faculty. For Finckel, having regular contact over several weeks with the same students is notably different from summers past, when he would come to Aspen for a few days and squeeze in a cello master class or string quartet coaching alongside an Emerson concert.

“We’ve been trying to figure out how to make more of an impact at the festival,” he said. One way to increase the influence is using a panel of teachers, a technique Finckel was introduced to by Isaac Stern, in Israel, in 1997.

“When you’re on a faculty panel, with distinguished people, when you decide to open your mouth, you better be sure of what you’re saying,” he said. “It’s an atmosphere of extremely thoughtful teaching. And there’s an opportunity for us to learn as a faculty. These sessions are as much a revelation for me and Wu Han.”

The students, many of whom have had only minimal focused instruction in chamber music, are claiming revelatory results.

“We rarely get through one line without a comment about what to do,” said Will Hagen, a 20-year-old violinist from Los Angeles’ Colburn Conservatory, in his fourth summer in Aspen. “In two weeks, I’ve made more progress on a piece than I’ve ever done before.”

“It’s really stressful but in the best way possible,” said Fabiola Kim, a 22-year-old violinist from Juilliard, in her fifth summer in Aspen.

“They point something out, and it just opens a door,” Hagen added. “Where else do you get this, up to four teachers at once? I haven’t heard of that.”

The students demonstrate what they’ve learned with a performance today at 3 p.m. at Harris Hall. The free concert features what Finckel calls four of the greatest piano trios: Mendelssohn’s D minor, Beethoven’s “Archduke,” Shostakovich’s E minor, and Dvorák’s “Dumky.”

The students praise Finckel and Wu Han for the respect they give.

“They really treat us as their people,” Kim said. But there is also room for pushing the young musicians off the high dive, as in today’s concert.

“As much as you want students to dream and not hurry and not be concerned with worldly things, there is something to be said for throwing them into the pool,” Finckel said. “Which is the way the classical music world works very often. You have to play together, get along, bring a piece to a high level very quickly.”

For the art of getting things done, Finckel and Wu Han are a good example. Today’s student concert is followed by the couple’s 8:30 recital of sonatas by Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Debussy and Britten. On Thursday, the two join violinist Daniel Hope’s recital for a performance of the Brahms Piano Quartet No. 1. On Friday, Wu Han is soloist with the Aspen Chamber Symphony, featured on Britten’s Piano Concerto. On July 28, Finckel plays the Britten Cello Symphony with the Aspen Philharmonic Orchestra.

Finckel is resting easy about his decision to leave the Emerson. Part of that is because he believes the Emerson is in good hands, with new cellist Paul Watkins, and the decision to make the quartet a perpetuating ensemble, not ending with the departure of an individual member. (The Emerson, in its new membership, makes its Aspen debut Aug. 8.) “I couldn’t be more relieved or more happy for the quartet,” he said. “And happy for me.”

And part of being relaxed about leaving the quartet is how thoroughly Finckel has moved into the next phase of his career. Along with his work in Aspen and California and at Juilliard, Finckel, along with Wu Han, have run the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center for a decade, and they recently signed on for another seven years. The organization’s latest mission is to expand its presence in Europe and Asia. Finckel has at least five concerto engagements set for next year.

More than the traveling, Finckel is gratified by how stationary he is this summer. His schedule has him staying in Aspen for three full weeks.

“Not leaving once. Not even going downvalley,” he said. That represents time he can spend with students and learn for himself the art of teaching.

“There are a lot of great cello teachers out there,” Finckel said. “I’m not one of them yet. But I’m learning.”

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