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Busy duo find time to perform in Aspen

Stewart Oksenhorn

Some years back, David Finckel and Wu Han had a condo in Aspen.

“But it was too much trouble trying to fix it up,” said Wu Han. “Every time we’d come there, there were all these things we wanted to do with it. But we were always too busy. It got to be too much.”

The lives of Finckel and Wu Han, who are married, have gotten no less busy in the years since they sold their condo. Finckel, cellist for the notoriously ambitious Emerson String Quartet, travels the world both as a soloist and in his chamber group. Pianist Wu Han has emerged as an international soloist in her own right, having recently made her debut with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. And the two make time to perform together often; this year they have played recital concerts as a duet in San Francisco, Denmark, Chicago, Israel and Japan.

Tonight, the road brings Finckel and Wu Han back to Aspen’s Harris Hall, one of their most regular concert stops. The two kick off the Aspen Music Festival’s Winter Music series with a recital concert at 8 p.m. The program includes works by Beethoven, Franck and Alfred Schnittke.

If performing was the only item on their agenda, Finckel and Wu Han might have had time to spruce up that Aspen condo. But concerts are only the beginning of their musical obligations.

For four years, the two have served as artistic directors of the La Jolla (Calif.) SummerFest, a two-plus-week festival of concerts, classes and lectures.

And, two years ago, Finckel and Wu Han formed ArtistLed, a label primarily for their own recordings. ArtistLed both allows and demands Finckel and Wu Han to serve as their own masters – selecting the material, setting up recording schedules, working hand in hand with their engineer.

The ArtistLed recording projects come on top of the prodigious recording responsibilities Finckel carries on his shoulders as part of the Emerson String Quartet. In 1997, the Emerson released its massive, Grammy-winning recording of the complete Beethoven quartets; this summer, the quartet will wrap up its recordings of the entire Shostakovich quartet repertoire, a project undertaken at Harris Hall each summer since 1994.

“The intensity of the life is really considerable,” said Finckel, who has a 4-and-a-half-year-old daughter with Wu Han, his wife of 13 years. “Everything runs on a deadline; everything has to be done by a certain time. If not, Wu Han and I are left to trying to pick up the pieces.”

Of late, the couple has been reaping the fruits of those efforts. A pair of ArtistLed releases – the Complete Works for Cello and Piano by Beethoven, recorded in Harris Hall, and a selection of sonatas by Chopin and Grieg – have been placed on the Grammy Award ballot. For a label as new and as tiny as ArtistLed, the recognition is a major accomplishment.

“The fact of not being a store-bought product, of selling on the Web, it’s difficult for the bastions of classical music to relate to,” said Finckel. “Some magazines, like Gramophone, won’t review them.”

“We had to work, especially in the beginning, against a lot,” said Wu Han, a native of Taiwan. “People thought it was a vanity thing. To be accepted in the Grammy world, then, has been very meaningful.”

The recognition is a mere bonus. The goal of ArtistLed was simply to allow Finckel and Wu Han the freedom to put music alone – rather than economics or marketing – at the top of the list of their concerns.

“We have a strong feeling about the way we want them to sound, the way we want the interpretations,” said Finckel. “We’re not beholden to anyone to release a record if we don’t think it’s good enough. That kind of freedom gives us the courage to take artistic chances. It’s not a business-driven venture. It’s part of our musical lives.”

Finckel in particular will become a part of the lives of Aspen classical music audiences over the next few months. The cellist returns to Harris Hall April 20, when the Emerson String Quartet closes the Winter Music series. This summer, Finckel will be the soloist in a cello concerto commissioned for the Music Festival’s upcoming 50th anniversary season, and composed by Augusta Reed Thomas specifically for Finckel. And the Emerson String Quartet will conclude its Shostakovich cycle with a pair of performances this summer.

For the moment, Finckel and Wu Han have their minds on tonight’s concert. Finckel hopes that the piece by Schnittke, a Russian composer who died in 1997, has as big an impact on the audience as it had on him when he first heard it.

“It’s quite an experience, quite a powerful work,” he said. “I heard it first in New York, and at the break, I called Wu Han and told her we had to play this piece.

“It’s tuneful at the beginning and at the end. But in the middle, it’s quite chaotic. It’s quite a show.”


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