Finckel, Han to perform at Aspen Music Fest
July 3, 2012
ASPEN – David Finckel says this has been his best year ever, career-wise. The cellist and his wife and music partner, pianist Wu Han, were named musicians of the year by Musical America. Finckel calls it “the biggest award we’ve ever gotten,” noting the recognition not only of their instrumental talents but of their work as owners of a record label, as artistic directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and as founders of a festival.
The festival they run together, California’s Music@Menlo, has its 10th outing later this month, and the duo has worked up a unique concert program to mark the occasion. As a prelude to the Music@Menlo performance, Finckel and Wu Han will debut the program – which features five pieces, each intended to have a distinct effect on the listener – Tuesday at 8 p.m. at Harris Hall.
This accounting passes over the biggest news of Finckel’s most excellent year. In January, Finckel announced his retirement from the Emerson String Quartet, the massively ambitious ensemble he has been a member of since 1979. Finckel counts his exit as more good news – Paul Watkins, whom Finckel says is a remarkable musician, has agreed to take the cello spot, and the Emerson has decided to become a perpetuating ensemble, meaning each member can feel free to leave without threatening the continued existence of the quartet. Moreover, Finckel is now free to pursue other opportunities: cello repertoire outside the quartet setting; giving proper attention to the Chamber Music Society and Music@Menlo; a teaching position at Juilliard, the first professorship he has ever accepted.
“I had so many other things in life I wanted to do,” said Finckel, who performs his last Aspen concert as a member of the Emerson on July 12, and his final Emerson performance next May, in Washington, D.C. “If I didn’t do them, I’d resent the Quartet for preventing me from doing these things, and I didn’t want that. Playing Bach cello suites – it just takes too much time, monastic time. It seemed the right thing to do was to step aside.”
Talking about the conclusion of the Emerson was nearly impossible. Five years ago, the members began discussing how the quartet should come to an end; they worked up a 10-year-plan that would close with the full cycle of Beethoven quartets. But the musicians – violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer and violist Lawrence Dutton, in addition to Finckel – had trouble putting the plan into motion.
“Every time we talked about it, it was so depressing,” Finckel said. “It was like planning our own funeral. We couldn’t hit the clock button. It’s easy to end an ensemble, or a career, badly. I have a lot of dear friends who stayed onstage too long, and it didn’t do them any good.”
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Which only partly explains why Finckel would rather talk about Tuesday’s concert than the future of the Emerson. The program is tied to this year’s Music@Menlo theme, Resonance. The California festival has eight main performances, each one geared toward a specific audience response: delight, passion, inspiration, etc.
“Instead of making the music the focus, the focus is on the listener,” Finckel said of the Music@Menlo theme. “The place of residence in the listener is the final destination when the composer puts pen to paper. Without that resonance, it hasn’t finished its journey. It’s about, Why do we do this, why do we come together like this? These are shared responses which form a community.”
Finckel and Wu Han’s concert sharpens the focus on those responses. A sonata by R. Strauss is about delight. “There’s a lot of music written that is just delightful, that doesn’t plumb great depths but is just there to be enjoyed,” Finckel said. A portion of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, composed in a German World War II prisoner camp, represents the spirit: “That music can bring about a heightened sense of meditation. This is one of the most spiritual pieces of music ever written.” Albeniz’s Suite espanola is intended to make listeners want to dance; Chopin’s Cello Sonata is meant to stir the audience to an impassioned state; Glazunov’s Chant du menestrel is supposed to transport listeners: “This one little piece will take you to 19th century Imperial Russia.”
Many concerts are put together with a notion of cohesion. Finckel is not worried that this program is intended to produce a full variety of emotions. “That’s what we want,” he said. “This is an emotional around-the-world, and people should be drained by the end. If they’re really worn out by emotions by the end, that’s fine with us.”
Finckel might be best known for his membership in the Emerson, a 34-year-run that has produced recordings of the complete Shostakovich quartets (recorded in Harris Hall between 1993-99); the complete Beethoven, Bartok and Mendelssohn quartets; nine Grammy Awards; numerous commissioned pieces, including works by Aspen Music School faculty Edgar Meyer and George Tsontakis; and an Avery Fisher Prize.
But Finckel’s musical association with Wu Han runs nearly as long as his membership with the Emerson. In the early ’80s, while teaching at the Hartt School of Music in Connecticut, Finckel was given a coaching assignment.
“I remember thinking, What is a Wu Han Trio?” he said. Finckel found a woman behind a piano, wearing overalls, dirty sneakers and huge glasses, a pack of cigarettes by her side. “And then the coaching started. B major piano trio by Brahms. I thought, something is not right here. This beautiful music came out, caught me off-guard. Everything she did was extraordinary. I couldn’t take my ears off her. There was not a lot of verbal communication. I just had to play and she knew exactly what I was looking for.
“And that’s how it still is. We don’t talk a lot. Thankfully, we don’t have to.”