David Finckel and Wu Han

Photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

Photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

In the coming months, we will be featuring interviews with musicians of various backgrounds. If you are a musician and would like to be featured in our series, please contact us at thecounterpoints[@]gmail.com. A complete list of our interviews can be found here.

Named '2012 Musicians of the Year' by Musical America, David Finckel and Wu Han are the artistic directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and Music@Menlo, their festival in Atherton, California. Below is the transcript of our July 11, 2012 conversation with David Finckel and Wu Han.

EH: Technical standards have improved, but there seems to be the consensus that the ability to sing on the instrument, or to touch people, has suffered over the decades. Are you in agreement with this, or are audiences simply not paying close enough attention to the technical achievements of today’s musicians ?

David Finckel: That is a very interesting question. There was an age of instrumental playing that kind of peaked within the first third of the twentieth century. Beginning in the nineteenth century, with performers like Franz Liszt, were musicians who were able to excite an audience and communicate on a whole new level. It began there and rose until the apex of expressivity; I’m thinking of a violinist like Fritz Kreisler, for example. The zenith of virtuosity, a violinist like Jascha Heifetz, the supernatural in a pianist like Vladimir Horowitz, these are performers who were so idiosyncratic and personal that to imitate them would be like filling somebody else’s bottle with your wine.

I studied with one of those people myself in Rostropovich, and he was almost an anachronism. He reached those very heights with the cello in the second half of the century, and the cello evolved a bit in his hands. To answer your question more directly, the kind of music-making, that expressivity and personal way of connecting with the audience simply through sound – not histrionics, not facial expressions, not gestures, not clothes, not fashion, not beauty – is something that is probably the ultimate achievement on any instrument. We all know that there are many people that can play the instrument perfectly today, up and down with technical perfection, but does the sound connect internally, do they touch people’s hearts, how creative are they…. ? The element of creativity and possibility in interpretation is something that we explore on a daily basis in great detail here at this festival. It’s a kind of laboratory, a cauldron of that creativity, which has the utmost respect for those who achieved those incredible heights.

Wu Han: With the older generation, from those who made a significant impact - Isaac Stern, Rostropovich, Mr. Serkin - I’ve always believed music-making to be a reflection of one’s personality and one’s beliefs. Being an artist and a musician, I have witnessed the previous generation taking the art form, not as a way of making a living, but as a belief, an almost maniacal, sometimes insane devotion and commitment to communication. You asked about a decrease in engagement, and I think sometimes it’s a reflection of how much the new generation is willing to commit to the art form; sometimes it’s a reflection of the intensity. This is not the art form of how to play louder or faster, it is a living, deep understanding of meaning and conviction of the power of music. It is what made those artists so special. These were musicians who could walk on stage and communicate something even with a single note. I would say that for the younger musicians, technical proficiency is necessary and a given these days. But the study and the way you function in society, your beliefs and the way you live, that is where you will find a real musician, a real artist.

EH: I’m curious to know what it was like to play for Rostropovich, Mr. Finckel. What were some of his methods about music-making that made an impression on you ?

David Finckel: The first and still, thankfully, the biggest infusion of inspiration and knowledge that I received from him was through his recordings. Of course, hearing him live in concert over many years, and now that he’s gone, reliving many of those great experiences in the incredible recordings that he left, has also made an impact. A lot of my musical education was done simply by listening; Wu Han will say exactly the same thing. If you really want to excel on your instrument, it’s almost impossible to not develop and analyze what you see and hear and to incorporate all of it into your own playing.

When I finally got together with Rostropovich as a student, he was very focused, almost entirely focused on the music itself, on what the composer had in mind and what he knew about the composer. Many of the works that I played for him had in fact been composed and written for him; he was often the first performer of these works, having known the composers personally. For the composers he did not know, Schubert, Beethoven, etc., there was a lot of incredible speculation on his part as to what might have inspired the composer to write this note or that note.

For Rostropovich, every single note that he played had a special kind of human meaning behind it. And this was something that he expressed and demanded of everyone who worked with him, who wanted to rise up to that level. He made us all aware of that very innate human quality of music, and he demanded of all of us a kind of commitment and level of communication that was always beyond what we thought we were capable of – and often even what we thought was necessary.

EH: Speaking of composers, it is the duty and responsibility of the performer to be faithful to the score. Can great instrumentalists and ensembles surpass the vision of the composer ?

David Finckel: That’s interesting. Most of the repertoire that I have played, with some regularity in my career, I’ve actually heard and performed more times than the composers themselves. We (the Emerson, myself, Wu Han, and our students) always begin with the score as a point of departure. In a way, it’s like the Bible or the Constitution of the United States. The words are there, you respect them, but they do need to be interpreted by people. So yes, these scores are our bibles, but they can only come to life in our hands. One of the things that we’ve become increasingly fascinated with are the original manuscripts of the composers. On my blog, I wrote about visiting the Dvorak library in Prague and seeing the manuscripts of the Cello Concerto and the two Trios that we recorded for our company. There was so much meaning, so much feeling that we got out of seeing the composer’s own manuscripts. You can clearly see how Dvorak was feeling when he wrote this and that. The clues are part of the joy of being a musician, which involves a certain amount of detective work.

EH: For many instrumentalists dreaming of a major solo career, chamber music is unfortunately a bit of an afterthought. You have both lived and felt the power and energy of performing intimate music with great musicians. How would you describe the joys and experiences of chamber music to young, aspiring musicians ?

Wu Han: You know, the very first part of that question is already a bit problematic (laughs). If you’re dreaming of being a great soloist, walking on stage, receiving ovations night after night, having money thrown at you, girls chasing after you and your beautiful picture – that’s wonderful. But what exactly does that have to do with the practice of music ? You know, the chamber music repertoire is so vast that if one is genuinely curious about music, the art of listening, understanding and responding to a score, the elementary skills and requirements of chamber works are easily applicable to that of any solo playing. I’m thinking of great listening, the sensitivities towards color changes, shifts, rhythm and tempo, etc. You can bring all these things to concerto-playing and the treatment of different voices – e.g. is a line playing a supporting role, how do your notes fit into the complete score, what are the important notes in a given chord – these are the 101 basics of chamber musicians. Pianists like Daniel Barenboim, Martha Argerich, they all have great chamber music practices because they understand the importance of it. So I would advise all young musicians to not only experience and play chamber music, but to go to operas, speak to the singers, to explore and expand your horizons.

David Finckel: I think you can also tell a lot from the lives of many of today’s great soloists. Their participation and gravitation towards chamber music is ever increasing. Even if you are a pianist, your concerto repertoire is very limited compared to what your chamber repertoire would be if you were a chamber music pianist. And certainly for the cello, if I were to run around the world playing just the cello concertos – and believe me, I love playing them – I would be counting my entire repertoire from year to year on my two hands (laughs). Whereas, instead of having the Beethoven Triple Concerto as my Beethoven piece, I have the five Cello Sonatas, the three sets of variations, the sixteen String Quartets, and the ten Piano Trios all in my fingertips. And for these, I consider myself to be a much more fortunate musician.

EH: In a recent interview with the San Jose Mercury News, you stated that “rigorous programming” is the emphasis and one of the reasons for the success of the Music@Menlo festival. How would you describe the quality or the appeal of this music ?

David Finckel: The realm of classical music is so vast - not only in terms of style but of era, age and the purposes for which it was composed - it is an enormous art form. And because of this, we have at our finger tips an incredible variety of experiences that one can have, even over the course of a single evening. The breadth of the repertoire can be daunting for the uninitiated or for those who feel that they lack the knowledge or understanding going into a concert situation. So when we use the word ‘rigorous’, it’s not meant to make it seem difficult. It is rigorous in terms of our own self-discipline in putting together programs that make sense, from which any listener can come away with the feeling of empowerment – not only in terms of musical enjoyment, but in feeling secure in a certain niche of this great art form.

Wu Han: I have personally witnessed on many occasions, especially in the most difficult of times, like right after September 11th, what music can do for people. It seems to be ingrained in us, where we can enjoy and heal through this art form. So for me, it is something that we should all have because it is about making a connection.

EH: Over the past two-hundred years, there’s been somewhat of a trend of resistance for the programming of new and current works. In ten years of Music@Menlo, have there been conflicts about the programming of contemporary pieces ?

Wu Han: No, we have not experienced this. But it does take time for society to accept new music. The pieces that have survived, the ones that we all love, were not all popular in their time. Just look at Beethoven’s late string quartets. The music that the musical community selects, however, is usually the very best. When you listen to new music, your frame of mind is very different, and I think our audiences receive these very well. In the ten years of Music@Menlo, over two seasons for example, we had a sort of evolution-type of programming, which stretched from the Baroque all the way into the contemporary. And because there was a purpose to the selections, a very interesting thing was that there was no dip in attendance for the concerts that featured contemporary works. With the Chamber Music Society in New York, we actually had to move the contemporary concerts into larger venues because there was such high demand to hear these works. So I’ve never felt, under our leadership, that there have been any difficulties with respect to new music.

EH: On August 9, you will both be performing Fryderyk Chopin’s Cello Sonata. What are the strengths and weaknesses of Chopin’s writing for this instrument ?

David Finckel: The Cello Sonata is one of only nine works that Chopin wrote for anything other than solo piano, piano concertos, etc. There are no weaknesses in his writing for the cello, in this piece or in the fantastic polonaise that he wrote some fifteen years earlier. Chopin had a wonderful understanding, and one of his very close friends was Auguste Franchomme, a cellist who would later be one of his pallbearers (to show how close they were), and it was actually to Franchomme that Chopin wrote this sonata. We are incredibly lucky to have the sonata because it is a masterpiece of duo-writing. It is chamber music at its finest - virtuosic and expressive composing for both instruments. I am simply adamant about how great this piece is. It is probably the first full-blown Romantic cello sonata in the literature, and it is a pre-cursor to the great cello sonata written by Sergei Rachmaninoff. I dare say that if Chopin had not written this sonata, we might not have the later cello sonatas by Brahms, Strauss, and even works for the violin by Franck (and Strauss). This is a great example, ahead of its time, quintessential Chopin, and people will just love it.

EH: In your opinion, what is the utmost purpose of performance art ? Is it to recapture something from previous generations ?

Wu Han: Our interpretations through the years and generations have always changed, but the emotions, ideas, and the thoughts of the composers are still with us, and these are the premise of the music. The time factor has little to do with it because, after all, it is about human feeling, the Universe and who we are as people.

David Finckel: I don’t think too much about the past when I am actually playing, I prefer to concentrate on the present. The performance of a piece, no matter how long ago or where it was written, is always a new production, something that comes alive in the present. And it doesn’t matter if the piece was written two or three hundred years ago if it is alive in us. I think one of the most wonderful things we can do as performers is to remind audiences that they can still relate to the emotions and feelings, as though the music had been written yesterday. You know, the way we consume music has changed over the years, but this music still means a lot to many people. We have more access to classical music than ever before, and the entire literature of the art form is available at our fingertips, at the push of a button. And this is an incredible thing.

EH: Final question: You are each married to a musician of international renown. Is this an arrangement that you would recommend ?

Wu Han: That’s funny, you know, we’ve never actually looked at it that way (laughs). I think it is absolutely wonderful to be married to the person with whom you can best communicate.

Finckel: We are definitely very grateful that we share our career, our music, and even things like being nervous before concerts and understanding what the other is experiencing through a concert. For me, it has been the best life and it’s hard to imagine doing it any other way.

EH: Thank you both for your excellent answers and for taking the time today. We’re looking forward to the festival.

Finckel: Thank you very much, Elijah. It's been a real pleasure.

Wu: Thank you, and please keep your faith in the art form. We'll see you soon!