An Interview With Wu Han: Music@Menlo Lands a Brand New Venue

Marianne Lipanovich on October 6, 2009

The founders of the summer music festival Music@Menlo are returning to the Peninsula this fall. Wu Han and David Finckel, along with Anthony McGill, are performing on Oct. 11 at the opening of the new Menlo-Atherton Performing Arts Center, on the campus of Menlo-Atherton High School. It’s a state-of-the-art building, and, says Wu Han, “I can’t wait to play there.”

How did you become involved with this project?

In the years since we started Music@Menlo, we’ve always dreamed of a chamber music hall in the Bay Area. When the building was being planned, they called us for input. We spent time giving our advice, based on our experiences performing about 200 concerts a year. We mentioned things such as a quiet A/C, having only about 500 seats for intimacy, designing a room that’s warm and beautiful. They took to heart all our suggestions. Our performance is a way to open the hall and hear what it sounds like.

What will you be performing, and why did you choose these pieces?

We’re playing with Anthony McGill, a most-well-loved artist and a fantastic clarinet player. He’s straight off his performance at the Obama inauguration. We wanted to try out the building for how it sounded with both strings and wind instruments. Wind instruments have the high frequency. The strings have the low frequency.

We’re doing three pieces that we chose to test the hall. The first is Beethoven’s Op. 11 Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano, which will help show the clarity of the hall; it has some of the softest, quietest moments. The second is Beethoven’s Cello Sonata in G Minor; it has a huge dynamic range. The third is a staple, the Brahms Op. 114 in A Minor; with its really thick, loud chords, it needs a hall that can provide warmth.

How did you come to start Music@Menlo?

It was after September 11 [2001]. We wanted a spiritual way to give back to the community. The arts provide inspiration and make us a civilized society. People need a place of belonging, and the arts provide that. When times are easy, you forget that. After September 11, when we played concerts, people had tears in their eyes because of the magic and power of the music.

The Bay Area is a fertile ground for a summer festival. There are good youth symphonies. There is a university community. People in the Bay Area care for the arts and want to have something to do with music. The weather is great; the wine is great. We were surprised that it hadn’t been done before.

What did you envision for the festival?

We wanted the best performances and to build a community through music. The education aspect was also very important.

How did you go about getting started?

The idea was both supported and scrutinized by the Hewlett Foundation. They said, “Go ahead, but you have to prove it will work.” There was rigorous scrutiny and high benchmarks.

Usually a festival starts up slowly, with three or four concerts, and builds over the years. It may have been idealistic or unrealistic, but we thought, “Who has the time to wait that long? Let’s just build the ideal, with the recording, education, radio broadcasts, lectures — all at the same time. If you want to do it, do it bold.” We didn’t know it would be so hard!

Originally, we planned on hitting capacity the fifth year. We reached 98 percent in the first season. We knew it was precious.

You and your husband, David Finckel, are also artistic directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center [since 2004]? How did you get involved with this group?

They are the biggest presenters, with a distinguished history. They always have players lead the organization. They approached us. It took us a long time to agree. We wanted to share the position. We knew it would take two of us. It’s a lot of work and responsibility. We have radio programs and established a recording label. Not only are we presenting in New York, but there’s also a touring program internationally. There’s also the responsibility of commissioning pieces. That part is inspiring. You feel you’re contributing.

What is concert promotion like, compared to simply performing?

In promotion, you wear many hats. You’re able to create opportunities for others and for the younger generation. You’re connecting and passing the knowledge. You’re nurturing the young. We even have an internship for administrators. It’s a different type of satisfaction. We call it the “presenting bug.” You see people walk away happy and inspired. It’s similar to what happens after playing a concert.

You also started in 1997. How is this doing?

It’s doing great. It supports itself. We’re working on final approvals on the new CD: four contemporary cello sonatas written for us. We release one CD a year. It’s an unbelievable position. I can record what I want.

You and your husband work together so much. What are the pluses and minuses?

The pluses are that we understand each other. By the time we make a decision on something, we’ve really vetted out all of the negative. If we have disagreements, by the time we agree, we know it’s a good idea. If we don’t agree, it’s not a good idea. The minuses are that it’s really intense. One minus that’s actually a plus is that we both travel so much, we don’t see each other as often, so we don’t have time to fight.

When you do have any spare time, what are you likely to be up to?

Cooking. We also love to try new restaurants. We both love to travel for pleasure. When we travel for work, we don’t have time to explore new cities. So we plan for that. It also gives us a chance to try more food.

What instruments besides piano are you drawn to?

I had a double major in viola and piano. I play two other Chinese instruments, and percussion and flute. I like other instruments, especially the viola. I played the viola well enough to play in a professional orchestra as a kid. It’s a privilege and an advantage to know a string instrument. I’d love to learn clarinet; it is so like a human voice.

Can you imagine being anything other than a musician?

I love being a mom; it’s a great joy. I enjoy running an organization. As a kid, I would have loved to be a reporter. My mother worked in the newspaper business. We went to press conferences. I liked the free cookies. I also liked the excitement, and seeing how people could dig into a problem and learn more.

Is your daughter also a musician?

She plays the piano pretty well but says she doesn’t want to be a professional musician. My only requirement is that she play well enough to be able to enjoy it. I think it gives her an extra edge. By playing, she learns to analyze and identify problems, she learns discipline, and she learns what it takes to accomplish a task. I wish all parents knew the benefits of music education and took it as seriously as they treat sports. Kids learn so much. It’s another layer of helpful development.

What are you listening to these days?

I’m listening to Spanish music like crazy — Granados, Albéniz, Mompou: great Spanish composers, incredible rhythms. At one point, I was listening to Schubert all the time. It was so touching and beautiful and complicated, it made me an emotional basket case. The Spanish music is much more relaxed.