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Duo kicks off Aspen Music Fest winter series

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
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ASPEN ” When the Aspen Music Festival’s Winter Music Artist Recital Series opens this week, it probably will suffice for most audience members to see that the performers are cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han. The husband-and-wife duo are champions of the classical world, filling the roles of performer, artistic director, record label executive and festival founders.

In Aspen, their status is especially elevated: They perform here regularly as a duo, and Finckel makes additional appearances as a member of the Emerson String Quartet. Both Finckel and Wu Han are on the Aspen Music School faculty, and since selling the condo they used to own here, the two often stretch their visits into weeks-long vacations.

So many concertgoers will be drawn in merely by the names of the musicians and give maybe a passing glance to the night’s program. Which is OK; the program already has been lavished with attention.

Finckel and Wu Han, in addition to putting themselves on the top tier of instrumentalists, also have developed their skills at selecting material. Programming, of course, is part of the job description for all classical soloists. But Finckel and Wu Han are in the business not only of assembling concerts, but entire seasons of music.

In 2003, the couple ” who met in 1982, when Wu Han won a competition sponsored by the Emerson Quartet ” founded Music@Menlo, a chamber music festival in Silicon Valley that they continue to lead. The following year, they became the artistic directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York City, the most ambitious chamber music organization in the country. In those capacities, the two constantly are thinking of what music fits where.

“Our minds just naturally go there. It’s a habit you can’t break,” Wu Han said by phone from Denver International Airport, as she and Finckel were on their way to Vancouver. “It’s trying to really hit or project a specific idea. That’s a piece of art that you develop. It’s part of the requirement ” knowing the timing in the hall, the intimacy of the hall. And you must know the different artists.”

Tuesday’s concert at Harris Hall ” the first of five concerts in the Winter Series, which runs through March 10 ” features works by Brahms, Beethoven, Schubert and Webern. The selections are intended to spotlight composers from Vienna, but beyond that, to offer a survey of styles that have come out of the Austrian music capital over various periods.

“We put this together because the pieces all surround Vienna, and represent different sides of Vienna,” Wu Han said, noting that she and Finckel keep a database of several thousand pieces of music to choose from. “The variety is very important. Webern’s Two Pieces is an early work, very Romantic, and then his Three Little Pieces, that represents the Viennese 12-tone school much better. The Beethoven [Sonata in G minor] is very stormy, but a real crowd-pleaser. And the Brahms [Sonata No. 2 in F major] is just one of the major masterworks, and different than any other work on the program.”

Much thought also has been put into the ordering of the pieces. The concert opens with Schubert’s Sonata for Arpeggione and Piano ” the arpeggione is a six-string, bowed instrument ” a very delicate work, according to Wu Han, and a contrast to the Beethoven piece that follows. The second half of the concert “starts like fireworks, then goes into an intriguing, intimate part,” with the two Webern works, “then gets grand and muscular” with the Brahms finale.

The Vienna program, which will be repeated in five more cities, from Pasadena to Columbia, Md., over the next few weeks, was created two years ago. It was the 250th anniversary of the birth of Mozart, another giant of Viennese composition. Finckel and Wu Han, like virtually all classical musicians everywhere, were swimming in Mozart. That put them in a Germanic state of mind.

“We were looking for the widest range from the same culture,” said Wu Han.

Several years earlier, Wu Han had been surrounded by Russian music. The source this time was largely Lilian, the couple’s daughter, now a teenager, pianist and aspiring violist. Finckel and Wu Han has released a CD, “Russian Classics,” on the ArtistLed label, which they founded in 1997. Lilian responded dramatically to the Russian repertoire. (At the time, Finckel and the Emerson were in the midst of their complete Shostakovich quartets project, recorded in Aspen’s Harris Hall.)

“She loved Tchaikovsky’s ‘The Seasons.’ We played it every night and had such a good time with that. She loved to see my fingers flying,” said Wu Han. “She set lots of dances to that. I’ll never forget the little movements and gestures.”

The result was Wu Han’s solo CD, “Russian Recital,” featuring “The Seasons,” and works by Rachmaninov and Skryabin. The CD was recorded in 2001-’02, but released last year by ArtistLed. Again, there was much thought given to how the pieces would play against one another. The Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov represented traditional Russian music. “But I wanted something forward-looking,” said Wu Han, explaining the inclusion of Skryabin’s piano sonata. “He’s got Romantic gestures, but he’s also transforming into a virtuosic display of piano technique.”

In addition to programming their individual concerts, and entire seasons in New York and California, Finckel and Wu Han think in terms of their own seasons. Along with the Vienna program, they have worked up a program, “A Taste of Cultures,” that juxtaposes music from the same time period, 1883-86, from various countries.

Wu Han sees programming as an aspect of her art, much like her piano technique.

“Our minds are so wrapped around thematic programs, exploring a specific format or idea,” she said, “so the audience can see the music the way we see it. It’s another way of communicating with the audience. You control that sensation for the audience. It’s an endless possibility, like a big treasure chest.”

stewart@aspentimes.com


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