Cellist David Finckel is not a man of riddles. He gets right to the point and says what he means. “Our mission is very simple,” he says, “and it’s written on the door of our office: to serve the art of chamber music.”
His office at Lincoln Center in New York, where he and pianist Wu Han have served as co-artistic directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center since 2004.
“Part of serving the art of chamber music is not just playing it in your home space,” he continues, “but actually spreading it and introducing more and more people to it, and helping to sustain communities far and wide through the art.
“It’s music that was written and composed for more intimate surroundings, for more personally connected environments, and somewhat more social occasions, even. And so part of doing that is not just simply to do it in big concert halls in the middle of big cities, but to do it in the kind of places where the art form itself was born, which is in the more intimate settings.”
One of these more intimate settings is The Concert Hall at Drew University in Madison, which is hosting a music series presented by CMS that opened in November with a concert that focused on the allyships between Beethoven, Dvořák and Brahms. On Jan. 28, the second installation, “Magical Schubert,” will highlight the Austrian composer’s virtuoso chamber works, written during his final years.
The CMS-Drew partnership goes back to the 2006-07 season, when Wu Han and Finckel were invited by the university to launch a chamber music concert series as residency partners. The ’22-23 season is significant because it is the first one produced by the CMS.
The 2006-07 series “was the very first satellite series we established,” Wu Han says. “It was David’s first commitment — Madison — what a beautiful hall! We fell in love with the hall and the acoustic. The acoustic is really the most perfect chamber music hall in the world, and I don’t say that lightly! And of course, our connection there is personal.”
Born in Taiwan in 1959, Wu Han studied music in Taipei before coming to the United States as a graduate student. Halfway around the world, Finckel, born in ’51, was studying cello and riding his bike around Madison.
“My connection to Madison is another story, a personal story,” Finckel says. “But the two happened to bond together, you know: my attachment personally and musically to the town of Madison as well as my passion for spreading the love of chamber music wherever I can.”
The Wu Han-Finckels, who have been married since 1985, have full-time international careers as solo and duet performers. They share a love of chamber repertoire spanning all instrumentations, styles and historical periods.
Wu Han is a dynamo full of vitality and charm. Versatility is her hallmark and it puts her at the center of numerous directorship-advisership roles. She is the co-founder and co-artistic director (with Finckel) of the Music@Menlo chamber music festival and institute in Atherton, Calif.; artistic advisor of Wolf Trap’s Chamber Music at the Barns series in Virginia and Palm Beach’s Society of the Four Arts organization in Florida; and artistic director of the La Musica chamber music festival in Sarasota, Fla.
Of all her commitments, CMS is the largest. It is one of the 11 musical entities of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and the largest chamber music producer in North America. It’s a juggernaut in terms of annual activities including performances, education, recordings and broadcasts.
“CMS has always been viewed as unique,” Wu Han says. “Just the sheer size and stature, and the sort of commitment to chamber music is unparalleled to any other instruction.”
CMS’ influence gave the Wu Han-Finckels the leverage to pick up production of the series after it was shuttered during the pandemic seasons. And the duo couldn’t be happier.
“It’s been on our mind to continue the Drew series all through the pandemic,” Finckel says. “We know a lot of places struggled. Some fared better than others during the pandemic, some things disappeared completely, and others managed to just barely squeeze through. But you know, we got the sense of talking to people in Madison — friends of ours and lifelong friends who still live there — that so many people were really, really missing the chamber music series at Drew, going into that beautiful hall and hearing world class musicians playing great chamber music. We just felt compelled to try to make it work, somehow.”
“There’s an incredible following of CMS in this beautiful concert hall, which is only a few blocks from where David grew up,” Wu Han says. “Especially during the pandemic, we said, ‘No matter what happens, this series has to continue, it needs to continue.’ Our New Jersey audiences need to be served. They’re like family for both me and David. Personally, there’s a commitment in that as well as respecting the huge history and incredible following there.”
Finckel adds: “I’m very, very attached to the community. Madison was a wonderful town to grow up in. It had everything you could want in a small suburban town.”
Finckel’s father Edwin was the director of music at the Far Brook School in Short Hills, a progressive arts-based school, from 1951 to 1990. His mother worked in the front office. Finckel attended as a student and graduated from Madison High School.
He studied cello in Millburn with a teacher who was the principal cellist in the Colonial Symphony, a Morris County orchestra that performed at the Junior School, right around the corner from his childhood home. The Madison-based symphony was founded in 1948 by a group of local research scientists from Bell Laboratories, all of whom were dedicated amateur musicians.
Finckel’s music teacher encouraged him to audition for the cello section, and he got in. “It wasn’t too long before I noticed there were all these new young people in the orchestra, and I said, ‘Where do they come from?’ ” Finckel says. “And they said, ‘Oh they’re all from The Juilliard School in New York, and they’re here because their mentor and teacher had become the conductor of the Colonial Symphony.’ And his name was Oscar Shumsky.”
The American violinist was legendary for his refined, lyrical and expressive musicianship but never achieved the same recognition as contemporaries Yehudi Menuhin and Jascha Heifetz.
“He was one of the greatest violinists of the 20th century,” Finckel says. “He had a stellar following of students at The Juilliard School, all of whom wanted to come out to Madison and play under his baton. So there I was, this local boy, being in the orchestra, and there were all these Juilliard students. That’s how I got to know all my musician friends from New York and how I got to know my future colleagues in the Emerson String Quartet. Literally, my professional career was practically born in the Madison Junior School under this great conductor and great musician.”
Finckel was the first American student of Mstislav Rostropovich and went on to teach with Isaac Stern. He joined the Emerson String Quartet in 1979 and played with them for 34 years. He is currently a professor at The Juilliard School and Stony Brook University on Long Island.
His formative years with the Colonial Symphony inspired a deeply rooted commitment to the local community. The series intends to build New Jersey’s next generation of classical musicians and audiences through community connections.
“When the Colonial Symphony folded (in 2010), I was very sad,” he says. “I thought this is something that should not happen because it was a wonderful thing, and wonderful for the community. There was something about it that irked me enough to say, ‘I have got to get out there and do something about this, and bring great classical music back to Madison!’ So that’s what we’re doing with this series.”
“It’s a commitment,” Wu Han adds. “We should always remember our past.”
The duo puts these principles at the heart of their programming. “Magical Schubert” celebrates the 19th-century composer’s ethereal masterworks written at the end of his brief life.
“I learned to love Schubert when I was in my teens,” Wu Han says. “I was a very difficult teenager. I didn’t like anything my mother or my music teacher asked me to do, and you feel dramatically lonely or, let’s say, a sense of self-imposed loneliness. And that’s when I discovered Schubert. Even though I couldn’t understand any of the German words of the songs, I would always play Schubert and cry — you know, with my unbelievable, uncontrollable hormones of a teenager!”
In early 2020, when the performing arts industry shuttered because of the pandemic, the music of Schubert filled their house.
“David and I looked at each other and asked, ‘What music do you want to hear?’ and the Schubert ‘Winterreise’ was the first choice,” Wu Han says. “We played it over and over in the house. The music is so profound. It has that eternal quality. It’s deeply inspiring music that speaks to everybody’s heart. And it’s a must-go-to and a must-listen-to composer, especially after the pandemic.
“It’s the music that’s the most important in this unpredictable and messy, violent world. This is music that brings some hope and beauty in your life and in the world.”
The Jan. 28 program will include Trio No. 1 in B-flat Major, the last trio Schubert wrote before he died. “It has so much beauty, exuberance, happiness and hope in his life,” Wu Han says. “It’s so poignant in this juncture and in the music history. So for us to program a Schubert concert is just kind of elementary — we had to do it! When the staff asked us which programs should come to Drew, I don’t think it took us more than half a second to say these Schuberts.”
Fantasie in F minor for piano, four hands and Fantasie in C major for violin and piano are also on the program. “It’s one of the most difficult pieces written for both instruments,” Wu Han says of the latter. “It quotes all kinds of songs, so if you know them, it’s fun, and if you don’t know them, it’s fun for you to discover. It’s virtuoso in the highest display.”
The series spotlights the excellence of the multi-generational roster of CMS musicians. The Schubert concert will features pianist Alessio Bax and Gloria Chien, violinist Benjamin Beilman and cellist David Requiro.
“We want to give our audiences all the introductions to experience a large roster,” Finckel says, “so it’s not just the same musicians at the same shows. We have so many great players at our fingertips through CMS and other connections and we thrive on introducing them all over the place. Yes, we love to play, but we also can’t wait to bring soloists here and there, and get our audiences excited about them.
“Like I said, chamber music is a very social, familial art form, and we try to have as big and as inclusive a family as we can manage.”
The series’ third and final concert — “Great Quintets,” on April 25 — will spotlight the influential imprint of Mozart’s six quintets, which set the standard for the later masters to add a second viola to the standard string quartet, such as in Dvořák’s Quintet in E-flat major (colloquially, “The American”).
“Dvořák came to America and discovered the American spirit and the American melody,” Wu Han says. “We all need it to remind ourselves of the unlimited opportunity and optimism that attracts so many people to come to the country that we should all be so proud of.”
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