Impresarios of Exactitude: The Chamber Music Odyssey of David Finckel and Wu Han (Part 2)

Mark MacNamara on November 27, 2017
David Finckel and Wu Han

Desperately Seeking Rostropovich

In 1962, when cellist David Finckel was 10, he fell madly in love and was forever transformed. This happened in New Jersey, in Madison — a pinch of a town used to set episodes of The Sopranos and Friday Night Lights — in a house where the music drifting through the sitting room included his father’s favorite big band recordings as well as recordings of the star cellists of the day: Leonard Rose, Janos Starker, and the great Italian cellist, Antonio Janigro. But fate didn’t prick Finckel until his uncle, himself a cellist, suggested the boy listen to some Rostropovich. And then when that diamond needle settled down into those vinyl, spinal grooves, something happened.

Mstislav Rostropovich in 1959

“I can’t say that my reaction was anything except visceral,” wrote Finckel in an email the other day, “because I didn’t know anything about pedagogy or the history of cello playing or even string playing. It was simply as though, when I heard Rostropovich play, I was hearing my own voice. From one note to the next, his interpretation satisfied every desire my imagination could cook up about the music. I couldn’t help it: I began to imitate him, and even fantasize that maybe I WAS him.”

Not long after hearing that first recording Finckel got his mother to take him to a Rostropovich concert at Carnegie Hall, and then backstage to meet the master. And then to other concerts. This went on for years. Finckel describes himself as “a young musician/juvenile delinquent chasing Rostropovich up and down the East Coast.” In his 20s he once went off to London, with little money or plan, and tracked his idol to the home of Benjamin Britten, who was just about to drive away when Finckel arrived. “I’m so sorry,” said Britten. “Mstislav has gone to America.” Finckel stayed on until Rostropovich returned.

For Finckel, “Slava” was not only a virtuoso — the “speed and width of his vibrato was breathtaking” — but also he was a bonvivant, supremely sophisticated, and very much larger than life. He was alternately defiant and wise, and the man who said, so reassuringly to a young musician, “Perfect technique is not as important as making music from the heart.”   

David’s insinuations and persistence eventually worked, and Finckel persuaded Rostropovich to teach him, whenever possible. They became close friends and years later, in 1992, after Finckel had joined the Emerson Quartet, he persuaded Rostropovich to play with them in a recording of the Schubert "Double cello" quintet, D. 956.

“Some years back,” Finckel noted, “a very gifted and successful young cellist asked me how he could get a lesson with Rostropovich: should he write, call, send money or gifts, get recommendations? I told him that perhaps he should consider parachuting down on to the roof of Rostropovich’s apartment building on the Ave. Georges Mandel in Paris, with his cello. That was how you got his attention, by showing unconventional and fanatical determination to get what you wanted. That he respected. I was lucky that all the crazy trips I made, chasing him around the world, were viewed by him not as an annoyance but with a certain satisfaction and interest in me. Of course, he had many better students in his class in Moscow, ones who would go on to become many of the world’s leading soloists. But he either liked me, or took pity on me, or maybe he just needed to flex his teaching muscles once in a while in the middle of an endless tour. For whatever reason, when I asked to play for him, he never turned me down … during the height of his popularity I was basically the only American cellist dogging him for lessons. Why, I don’t know.”

An Empire is Born

David Finckel’s devotion to Rostropovich and chamber music, and his business instincts and tenacity, along with those of his wife, Wu Han, have led to the creation of one of the great initiatives in American chamber music history. Together, Finckel and Wu Han have formed a rare and unlikely network of residencies, festivals, concert series, a record label, a nonprofit international support group for artists, along with workshops and lectures, at home and abroad, a compelling video series, and two dozen spinoffs that have led to chamber music outposts, manned by former students, offering series or festivals around the world. Just now they have more than 20 projects going on simultaneously.

Wu Han and David Finckel | Credit: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

The core network stretches from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) Festival to the Music@Menlo Festival in Silicon Valley to an annual chamber music festival in Seoul, South Korea. 

The artists’ rise to prominence began in 1997, when Finckel and Wu Han established their own label, ArtistLed Records, the first “musician-directed, internet-headquartered classical music recording company.” That enabled them to program their own repertoire and venue, choose their own engineer and the timing of releases, and oversee liner notes and graphics. “In short, everything,” said Finckel. “I really can’t imagine any other way to do it. It seems to fit our style.”

Wu Han and David Finckel's Schubert recording on their own ArtistLed label

The same year, they were invited to be the artistic directors of the La Jolla Summerfest, which they did for three years, then took a break to consider the art of launching successful festivals. They began to see summer festivals as laboratories. “It’s a great place for experimentation, for immersion. It’s a place and a time where it’s easier to get and hold peoples’ attention. There is the possibility of continuity between events: lectures can be followed quite closely by concerts, for example.”

In many ways, the Music@Menlo festival has become the jewel in the crown. It’s a three-week annual festival held on the grounds of the Menlo School, just a few miles north of Stanford University. The festival’s Chamber Music Institute is devoted to instructing students from ages 9 to 29. There are 11 spots open in the International Performers’ level each year: two for piano, two for viola, three for cello, four for violin. Students in the international program cannot return; Young Performers Program students can. Many students in the YP program come from abroad. The day begins at 8:45 a.m. Younger students work on one movement each week; older students learn approximately five works in the three weeks. Every Saturday YP performers play concerts, which are live streamed.

The Funder

Eff Martin, and his wife Patty, have been the lead funders of the Music@Menlo Festival since it opened in 2001. From the beginning Martin was struck by David and Wu Han, who he nicknamed, “the dazzler.” He found her joie de vivre infectious and was enchanted by the way she and David energized the festival solely through their personalities: “the way they sacrifice, give encouragement and praise; it’s the spirit they bring to anything they do.”

Eff Martin, Wu Han, Patty Martin, David Finckel

Martin, a Stanford business school graduate, was one of the founders of the Goldman Sachs’ high technology business and went on to be a founding partner of Anthos Capital. He has become a major Bay Area philanthropist, whose beneficiaries include the San Francisco Symphony as well as various Christian organizations specializing in “spiritual formation.”

At Music@Menlo, Martin and the board have built a financial castle. Earning reports show both income and assets are steady; expenses and liabilities are down. The festival budget has grown five times since the beginning; but the business has always run in the black.

“We’ve been able to be cash-flow positive for the entire life of the festival,” Martin said last summer. “We deliberately overshoot any one year’s revenue targets; and because we’re able to raise additional funds we have a good deal of freedom.” The Music@Menlo Fund, which serves as a board-designated fund, currently stands at $1.9 million, and provides both annual operating support as well as emergency cash reserves.

On its 10th anniversary the festival raised more than $3 million. The board’s strategy has been to insure this festival would continue “even if we ran into some heavy static. I think we now could probably withstand another 2009.”

Stent Family Hall at Menlo School, Home to Music@Menlo

Ticket sales are limited by the number of seats, which are about 650. Between 90 and 98 percent are sold. The festival includes at least one free concert before every paid concert.  In 2016, 15,000 people saw a free concert, which is held in Martin Hall, named after Eff Martin. For International Performers all tuition is free along with housing. Airfare is not covered, but that’s an “aspirational goal” for Martin in coming years. Staff members stay in the homes of festival enthusiasts.

“Many times,” said Martin, “the music at the festival has lifted my spirit. I always think of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. That’s such a profoundly moving experience  — about what people subjected to evil go through. It’s one of the reasons we’ve wanted to give more, and help more. I think about that a lot actually.”

Creating Brand

David and Wu Han’s vision of a successful chamber music business grew from the conviction that “artistic excellence drives everything.” Which, surprisingly, is not the focus in many conservatories and colleges where the gospel of entrepreneurship centers on how to apply for nonprofit status, create budgets, attract donors, form marketing plans, and “build community.”

In the beginning, Han thought those were the silver bullets, partly because they sounded so much like the advice offered in the many how-to-succeed-in-business books she’d read. But then she began to analyze the amount of time and energy spent on successful performances and realized that the critical factor was putting together the most spectacular program possible.

She gave a recent example. On October 29 in Alice Tully Hall, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center played a program to honor Leonard Bernstein. Wu Han and David designed an evening that included Charles Ives’s Quartet No. 1, Bernstein’s Arias and Barcarolles, Anton Webern's Langsamer Satz for String Quartet; and Brahms’s Liebeslieder Walzer.

Arias and Barcarolles requires a baritone and mezzo-soprano and two pianos. I read that Bernstein was inspired by Brahms’s Liebeslieder Walzer, which requires four singers: soprano, tenor, baritone, and mezzo-soprano. To put out a program with four singers and two pianists is a large production by chamber music standards. I didn’t just throw this together; I started this project two-and-a-half years ago.”

Wu Han | Credit: Christian Steiner

Wu Han has a notorious obsession with perfecting every performance. She also has a “treasure chest” with more than 4,000 pieces of chamber music, which David has sorted by composer, region, and instrumentation. For Wu Han, no detail in a performance is inconsequential. And if, in the moments before the concert begins, someone is coughing in the audience Wu Han may go out and give them a cough drop. Meanwhile, backstage she’s still checking room temperature, lighting, acoustics, the height of mic stands, the demeanor of the musicians; giving last minute instructions on interacting with people during the intermission; telling them that even if you don’t want to stay around after the concert, that’s part of the performance, and don’t just talk shop, get a perspective from someone other than a musician.

“She teaches you how to socialize,” said Hyeyeon Park, a former IP student at the Menlo festival and now, with her husband Dmitri Atapine, chamber music pioneers in Reno, where they’ve been running their own, unexpectedly successful concert series, called Apex Concerts, for the last seven years. “I was so focused on myself and they taught me how to open up and engage people, both in the audience and in the group. Actually, I’ve learned how to be a nice person.”

“Chamber music can be so boring if not done well,” Wu Han told us, “because there are not many people to look at. With an orchestra, you have different sections and sounds and it’s all very entertaining. So it’s important to let the audience see how the chemistry in a chamber group keeps changing. And it all has to be genuine. People will detect fakinesss and a financial agenda; if there’s a hidden motive it will come out just because you’re so exposed. You are naked! And people can see right away whether you’re taking chances, and that’s why chamber music is so fascinating, because you see the true personality of all the participants.”

In the Heart of a Fanatic

David Finckel at Shaker Village in Pleasant Hill, Kentucky | Courtesy of Music@Menlo

One of Slava’s gifts to Finckel was articulating the musician’s mission — “to serve the composer and not himself.” And beyond that, perhaps, to give into fanaticism: to adopt Rostropovich’s do-or-die approach to every performance.

“I believe that all of us are born artists,” said Finckel. “My proof of that is the art of virtually all very young children, who create the most amazing work at nursery school age, the world over. As we grow, society dictates conformity. So for those wishing to pursue lives as artists, it’s all about how much you can resist, how much we can retain the freedom of thinking, the imagination we are born with, and bring it to life, day in, day out, to serve your chosen artistic genre.

“When I was young, I let my creative urges flow freely, without much thought, and I made a mark and that mark was the stepping stone to a career. Now that I have been through so much, now that I know so much more about what I am really doing, I am ever mindful to retain that youthful reliance on instinct rather than empirical knowledge as I approach the stage. It’s increasingly difficult to do so, but if one neglects that allegiance to instinct, all the education and experience in the world is not necessarily going to help one reach peoples’ hearts in the heat of the moment.”