Working in ConcertClassical ‘freaks’ David Finckel and Wu Han find fellowship in Aspen
Between performances, directing a music festival, running a record label and recently being named co-director of America’s leading chamber music ensemble, Wu Han isn’t exactly overburdened with free time. But as soon as the pianist’s two-week stretch at the Aspen Music Festival and School ends this week, Wu Han will take her daughter Lilian to France, where the budding 10-year-old musician will attend violin camp. Wu Han doesn’t seem thrilled by the prospect of the intercontinental trip, especially with the second season of Music@Menlo, the chamber music festival she founded with her husband and musical partner – and Lilian’s father, David Finckel – starting later this month. But Wu Han and Finckel know the importance for a young, aspiring classical artist to be among other like-minded children.”Classical music has become so marginalized, we really have to constantly struggle to see that what we do is valued,” said Finckel, a cellist. “That’s why we stay longer in Aspen than any other place in the world, except for our own home. We feel so good because we’re with people like us, instead of feeling like freaks.”At the moment he says this, Finckel and Wu Han couldn’t possibly pass as freaks. In fact, they could hardly look any cooler. Finckel is sitting on a big, pillowy chair, Wu Han is on a sofa next to him; both halves of the attractive, cool-looking couple are relaxed, shoes off. The view from the house, outside of Aspen toward Independence Pass, is magnificent. And when Wu Han scolds her Finckel for his negativity, she does it pleasantly, taking issue with the idea and not her husband. Wu Han’s view is that classical musicians – the “freaks,” like herself, her husband and daughter – are the lucky ones in the world.”That’s totally backwards thinking,” says Wu Han, who is as likely to finish Finckel’s sentences as she is to argue with his sentiments. “Forward thinking is, thank god for the Aspen Music Festival and Lilian’s music class. Thank god there are places where you’re encouraged to strive for great art, encouraged to achieve and where great art is celebrated.”For us to make sure our daughter is involved in situations like these, there’s a sense that she’s finding her own community. And really creating opportunities, being in a project that brings people together. Music, to me, is the most amazing cultural thing we can achieve.”Buoyed by his wife’s words, Finckel is effortlessly persuaded toward the idea of being thankful for music festivals, violin camps and the like. He chimes in that his own parents started and ran a music camp, Point Counterpoint, that still exists in Brandon, Vt.”That was such a wonderful thing,” said Finckel. “Eight weeks in the summer that was a whole society of being there for each other, listening to each other. That’s why Wu Han is going all the way to France with Lilian.”
Finckel and Wu Han are in accord that, among the places they have been where they are not made to feel freakish, Aspen tops them all. Both are regular performers, both summer and winter, at the Aspen Music Festival; Wu Han was a student here. One of the CDs they recorded for ArtistLed, the innovative Internet-based music label they founded together in 1997, was recorded in Aspen’s Harris Hall. Finckel used to own a condo in Aspen. On Saturday, July 10, Finckel and Wu Han perform a recital of works by Schubert, Strauss, Rachmaninoff and Chopin, at Harris Hall. Finckel, a member of the Emerson String Quartet, one of the Aspen Music Festival’s ensembles-in-residence, will perform with that acclaimed combo in concerts on Tuesday, July 13, and Thursday, July 15.”It’s like a retreat, like a think-tank situation,” said Finckel, who is spending more than two weeks in Aspen – a near-eternity, given his schedule. “You look at that festival, that’s packed for all the concerts, it gives you a great sense of belief, that there are places that value great culture and are not sucked in by pop culture,” said the Taiwanese-born Wu Han, who met Finckel in 1982, when she won the Emerson String Quartet Competition while a student at Connecticut’s Hartt School of Music. “I think every audience in that tent, everybody in this town that supports the Music Festival, that they contribute something to a way of looking at the world that believes in the future.”On a more personal level, Wu Han is emphatic about the impact the Aspen Music Festival has had on her life.”I see the magic of the Aspen Music Festival happen year after year, that people form relationships here and influence each other in their lives, in a way nobody would understand or believe,” said Wu Han, whose daughter is named after Lilian Kallir, one of her piano teachers here. “The people I met here as a student, and now on the faculty, their influence on our life is enormous. Robert Harth. (the late, former president of the Music Festival) When we started our Music@Menlo project, he was the first one we talked to because we saw how he made an infrastructure and created an atmosphere here. The colleagues we work with – like Jimmy Lin, like Gil Shaham, like Lynn Harrell – you just name one after another and how they’ve helped you. The bonding experience started here, going to the tent and listening to the concerts and hiking together and going to the bar together.”Added Finckel: “There’s a special way this place works. I always felt I could walk up to anyone in the administration and talk about anything. There’s no sense of class structure here. It felt so natural to call Robert Harth and say, ‘We’re starting this festival – what do we do?’
“Not all places are like that. But the system works. Look at everything that has come out of here.”Finckel and Wu Han have made for themselves plenty of opportunities to recreate the world they’ve experienced here. If they are freaks, it is a role they embrace to the fullest.In 1997, frustrated by the constraints of a major-label affiliation, they founded ArtistLed. Having their own label allowed them to select the material and decide how to record it. The effort has been well-received, and successful: ArtistLed, which has just one part-time employee apart from Finckel and Wu Han, recently released its seventh CD, an all-Schubert recording with the couple playing the Sonata for Arpeggione and Piano, and Wu Han making her solo recording debut on the Sonata for Piano in A major.”The beauty of ArtistLed is the model is designed quite trim,” said Wu Han. “You make a CD, you have a Web site, you sell it at your concerts. You don’t deal with the traditional dinosaur of a record company, advertising. You deal with the product itself. If you design it right and get first-class people, it’s a joy.”Not quite as simple is Music@Menlo. After serving as artistic directors of La Jolla’s SummerFest for several years, the couple decided to launch their own festival further north on the California coast, in the Silicon Valley. The timing couldn’t have been worse: the dot.com economy, centered in the Silicon Valley, had tanked; the San Jose Symphony’s century-long history had just come to an end.”They said, what, are these people crazy?” said Finckel of the reaction to their new project. “We put our head on the chopping board.”They were spared the knife. Music@Menlo sold out its entire first season. This summer’s 18-day festival, titled Origin/Essence: A Musical Odyssey and running from July 29 through Aug. 15, examines the chamber music, with an emphasis on vocal music, of five regions: Italy, Vienna, France, Eastern Europe and Russia.
“It was started on the principal that people will take the challenge, they will come to something with quality, they will come to something for the quality of their lives, rather than dumbing things down,” said Finckel. “It was very rewarding for the audience and the musicians because everyone knows what we are striving for.”Finckel and Wu Han used Music@Menlo to launch another pet project. Their AudioNotes program provides CDs – featuring music, composers biographies and other contextual information – to enhance the concert experience. AudioNotes CDs are given, free, to all ticket purchasers in advance of the concert. AudioNotes makes its Aspen debut with the couple’s concert this week.Capping it all, Finckel and Wu Han were named last month as artistic directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the pre-eminent chamber music ensemble. The five-year appointment is effective immediately, though the two won’t program their first season for the Chamber Music Society until 2005-06. The organization’s home venue, Alice Tully Hall, will be under renovation that year, a situation which they see as an opportunity to reach out to audiences and play in venues across New York. The following season, they will move into a renovated Tully Hall. “There’s the chance – the excuse – to be in touch with a huge range of musicians, composers, to program a variety of repertoire,” said Finckel of leading the Chamber Music Society. “There’s a great support system there.”Having found communities of sympathetic musicians and music lovers in New York, California and Colorado, maybe Finckel shouldn’t feel like so much of a freak after all. Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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