The Extremity of Love: Wu Han and David Finckel’s Chamber Music Odyssey (Part 1)

Mark MacNamara on October 24, 2017
David Finckel and Wu Han | Credit: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

Underneath, they’re two fanatics. That’s the truth. But you don’t say that these days. You have to be narrow and restrained, and speak in a reassuring way. You say, they’re devotees, or they’re hardcore, or you reduce them to some more bland ambition — they’re driven. Wu Han and David Finckel. The pianist and the cellist; 58 and 66. The daughter of a Taipei detective; the son of a big-band musician and arranger in New Jersey. Married for 32 years. The ingénue and her teacher. Their romance blossomed while playing Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E-flat Major.

Now, all these years later, they’ve become two patricians in chamber music society, both tall, slender, very sociable people despite their obsessions and in addition to a certain mischievousness; with a bohemian quality: he with wry humor, she takes her humor straight. He’s slightly shy; she, not at all. At first glance, she appears the front man; he’s the doo-wop, the sotto voce always trying to get in a word edgewise. But, at the end of the day, you realize he’s the navigator and the superintendent of dreams.

“We have very different personalities,” Wu Han told us last August during the Music@Menlo Festival, one of two signature organizations, along with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, of which they are co-artistic directors. “But we balance each other really well. I’m much more, ‘let’s jump into the sea and maybe it’s cold maybe it’s hot but who cares?’ David is the one that has to check the temperatures and make sure the water is deep enough for me to jump in, and he’s the one that will hold me back and say, ‘hey kid, don’t try this just yet.’”

Wu Han | Credit: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

In sum, they’re indivisible, from each other as well as from the music — they also have a 23-year-old daughter, Lilian, a photographer, and a recent graduate from Barnard. Sometimes, Wu Han feels as though she herself is 60 percent of both she and her husband; sometimes, she feels as though he’s 90 percent of both of them. They naturally infringe on each other and, for better and for worse, they’re locked into the world they’ve created. Which is to say they do best with people like themselves who share their energy and obsession. They’re like two anthropologists most at ease talking about tribal life in New Guinea.

They live in Manhattan in what was described in The New York Times, as “a wreck of a Classic 6”: six rooms in a prewar co-op on West 78th Street. They bought that in 1991 But then, years later, the apartment next door came up for sale. Wu Han wanted to sell their apartment and buy the other. David proposed buying the second apartment and joining it to the first. Which is how they came to possess their current loft.

By Beethoven Possessed

Their cursive signatures suggest their differences. Hers is vertical, stylish, dramatic, and vaguely legible; his is a simple curved line, rising from left to right and reminiscent of a fly caster’s line at full length. Two very popular musicians but also very successful artrepreneurs. In a whisper to the person in the next seat, as you await the lights to go down for one of their concerts, you might say, “yes, sure, they’re two devotees alright — of Beethoven, Schubert… and Mark McCormack [author of What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School: Notes from a Street-Smart Executive.]”

Wu Han, particularly, liked that book — with its insight into how to read people — along with other business books like Tom Wolfe’s, Nonprofit Organization in the 21st Century; Malcolm Gladwell’s, The Tipping Point; and Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don't, by Jim Collins. “Great” is the key word for Wu Han, because it suggests perhaps the romance and promise her imagination demands. 

David Finckel | Credit: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

Of course, these are two very street-smart people themselves, and beyond their own music personas — he was a long-time member of the Emerson String Quartet — they’re master directors and guest curators, artistic directors of Chamber Music Today, the first major Korean festival; founders of the Finckel-Wu Han Chamber Music Studio at the Aspen Music Festival; and together have established more than a dozen residencies for CMS Lincoln Center, across the country and abroad: from the White Nights Festival in St. Petersburg to Wigmore Hall in London to Shaker Village, Kentucky, where they play in a historic barn. Not to mention a growing empire of 21 chamber music “outposts” founded by alumni of Music@Menlo’s Chamber Music Institute. From Atlanta to Reno. In addition, they’ve become fixers, literally and figuratively — festival mechanics who understand how to recast failing festivals by syncretizing programs to attract audiences.

What makes them particularly interesting is the way they’ve become forerunners in the new world of artistic endeavor. It’s long been clear that it’s no longer enough to be a superb musician, no matter how driven. Everybody’s driven. The new trinity is performing, promoting, and entrepreneurship. You could argue that the last two are much more important than the first. The principles according to Wu Han and  Finckel are unchanging: you court patrons, trust the audience, deliver excellence, and remain flexible. And keep humor next to your breast at all times. To do all that effectively and consistently over a long period of time, you need to be a fanatic.

Not to overstate it, but the fact is that the Finckels, and others like them, may be the best shot to keep classical music in this country, in the broadest sense, relevant and vibrant. 

Feeding Frenzy

When I met them in August, the Music@Menlo festival was almost over. A closing party was scheduled for Saturday night, after which they would catch the red eye to JFK, drive three hours to Saratoga Springs, to introduce the CMS Lincoln Center at Saratoga Performing Arts Center festival, and get there by two in the afternoon. Last year they followed the same itinerary, and got backstage with 10 minutes to spare.

In our conversation, Wu Han explained she was preparing to take a six-week sabbatical, the first in years. A break from a dozen concerts a month, along with a daily regime of practice, promotion, and always some new project to explore. She had set out her agenda for her sabbatical in to-do lists. She looked into her phone and scrolled through her notes, which serve as a kind of aficionado’s guide to classical music.

David Finckel and Wu Han at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center

“There’s a double concerto for piano and orchestra by [Erwin] Schulhoff I need to check out. You know he died in the concentration camps. [Bohuslav] Martinu has a triple concerto for piano trio and string orchestra I need to see. [Josef] Suk has a really good piano quartet I want to learn. Zdenek Fibich has another piano quartet. And Karel Husa has another piano quartet. Joaquín Turina’s piano quartet, I want to check that out. [Tigran] Mansurian, another Russian [and Armenian)] composer. There’s Chris Cerrone, I don’t know him yet. He’s a young composer recommended by a friend. Saint Saens has a great bassoon sonata I need to see…”

She goes on and on, adding an occasional restaurant, neighborhood, or book: “The End of Illness. Do you know that one? Somebody told me I need to read it. Have you heard of the movie Diplomacy? [a 2014 Franco-German film directed by Volker Schlondorff]. I need to see that. [Anton] Rubinstein’s Piano Concerto No. 4. I’d love to check that out again. There are a couple of new cellists I need to check out. And I’m dying to play the last Schubert sonata, the B-flat Major Sonata. I’ve already scheduled myself for a tryout next April, in St. Louis. Everybody is telling me to play more solo stuff. But to do that I need a lot of concentrated time. So six weeks to myself is perfect for that….”

David Finckel and Wu Han | Credit: Alex Irvin/Aspen Music Festival

She finally paused. It seemed to occur to her that this list was longer than she’d thought, but then she added, “This is just one list; I have three more like this.” The next list began with classic fugues from Vienna. Somewhere on her lists is also the prominent young German composer and conductor, Jörg Widmann. 

Lists upon lists, but nothing is wasted. Every one of these forays, these entertainments, will be used, sooner or later. And you realize that when she says she’s going to “check” something out, it’s not as though she goes down to Schirmer’s — as if you still could — and glances through Beethoven’s greatest hits of 1806. No, the joy and the obligation for her is always to get the music and take it out for a spin. Play it herself and belabor it. Refresh herself with the history that goes with the music; imagine the composer, his times, what was he thinking, who was he sleeping with, what was he afraid of; ponder his markings; plan the fingerings in this bar; foresee where the drama could be heightened in that bar; is the left hand doing enough? Is there some humor here you didn’t see before? And remember this truth, “Find surprises, and if you want to scare people, don’t prepare them”

So you get the music deep into your head, and then, like any good businessman, you think about how to get the best “sound production” in a performance. Wu Han’s advice to students is always, “To have good sound production, you must have that sound you want to create in your head. And so you must take time to explore it, examine it, hear it, tape yourself, hear it from the other end.”  

Her other advice to students is, “you create your own weather.”

Reaching for Tens

At one point during the Menlo festival, sitting outside the theater at the Menlo-Atherton Center for Performing Arts, Wu Han put up her hands looking through her long, pianist fingers. “In the last three years,” she said. “I don’t know why, maybe I’m getting older, but I suddenly can reach a tenth. I think my hand has been expanding.” She giggled and added, “I’m still growing, but in the right way.”

“Of course, I do a lot of stretching exercises,” she went on. “But what this means is now I can play, let’s say, Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 3. I used to have to play only rolling chords, but rolling has to be done very carefully; those [concertos] are not in my regular concert repertoire.”

Wu Han coaching students from Music@Menlo's Chamber Music Institute | Credit: Music@Menlo

Wu Han has always had to stretch. Life’s etudes have been both difficult and ambitious.  She grew up in Taiwan, in a family of six. Meat once a week. Chicken once a year. The grandfather, a tea baron, lost everything after WWII. Meanwhile, Han’s mother was iron-willed and relentless. One day she sent her husband out to the “American flea market” to buy a suit for a wedding. He returned with a turntable and a stack of LPs, including Mozart and Beethoven symphonies, but no suit. “My mother nearly killed him.”  

And that was how it all began. Her mother found a music teacher and traded music lessons for dinners and got Wu Han into a music school; by 12, Wu Han was playing concerts and competing, and winning; at 17, she was teaching. In 1981, she came to America to study but had lost interest in prizes and looked around for something she could call her own and that she was passionate about. That’s when she came to chamber music.

The Information

David Finckel is fond of telling a story about American composer John Harbison, an icon among modernist composers and their fans whose artistic credo is "to make each piece different from the others, to find clear, fresh, large designs, to reinvent traditions.”  Finckel’s interest was about the time Harbision was teaching a course at MIT and became fascinated — and disturbed — that so many of his ear-budded students insisted on listening to musical bric-a-brac rather than the subject of his course: Haydn. 

“He stopped one of them and said, ‘you’ve been in my class now for six months. Can I just ask you why you aren’t listening to Haydn when you walk across campus?’ The answer was basically, ‘it’s too much information.’ He was introducing them to the wealth of information in classical music, but they don’t want to deal with that, and that’s why they like what they listen to; they don’t want to process. It’s too much. They just want to chill.”

David Finckel leading a cello reading at Music@Menlo" | Credit: Music@Menlo

“You see, to us, this is one reason that minimalism is very uninteresting: there’s not enough information to hold our attention. I listen to it and I think, ‘I don’t have time to listen to this, I don’t get anything out of it, to me it’s brainless.” Finckel checked himself, realizing he didn’t intend to paint with quite such a broad brush. “But of course, minimalism is lots and lots of things.”

The real information for David and Wu Han, and the heart of their fanaticism, is not just the music, nor the business derived from it. As David put it: “Hotel wake-up calls. Shuttle buses. Check in lines, Trouble with the cello’s seat on the airplane. Lousy food. No sleep. Can’t find the concert hall. Lighting’s no good. Acoustics not great. Only decaf coffee backstage. But then, I have my cello, and I’m playing Mozart. Wherever I am, no matter how tired, how frustrated, all of that dissolves as I finally take the day into my own hands, commune with a great composer, and share it with eager listeners. And if a musician can’t cope with the travails of touring that way, then they should probably stay home.”

In Part 2: How Wu Han and David Finckel set up Music@Menlo and the twisting path that turned them into impresarios.

Music@Menlo opens its Winter Series on Nov. 12, with pianist Jon Kimura Parker and former Tokyo String Quartet members, violinist Martin Beaver and cellist Clive Greensmith

Wu Han will next appear in the San Francisco Bay Area on January 19 at a Music@Menlo winter concert with members of CMS Lincoln Center.  A complete list of their schedule through May 2018 is available on their website calendar