At a moment when many feel that the time has come to administer the last rites to classical music, Emerson Quartet cellist David Finckel and his wife, pianist Wu Han, have unleashed a solid spiral of success with their summer chamber music series in California’s Silicon Valley, Music@Menlo. As co-artistic directors of the festival founded in 2003, the couple devises its programs; as performing artists, they play in its concerts. Festival tickets have become increasingly difficult to capture, a tribute to Finckel and Wu Han’s rare combination of musicality, focused programming, and unfettered imagination. However, the secret ingredient may be their addiction to taking risks.
High profile performers with independent careers, Finckel and Wu Han bring their ebullience to McCarter Theater in a duo recital, "A Taste of Cultures," on Monday, February 4. "This is one of the crazier programs," says Wu Han in a telephone interview from the couple’s New York home, "because it consists of three major romantic pieces." Sonatas by Richard Strauss, Edvard Grieg, and Cesar Franck will be performed.
"Each sonata can be a closing piece," says Wu Han, referring to their size and their power. "Each is from a different culture," she says, pointing out that Strauss’s professional life was centered in Germany; Grieg’s in Norway; and Franck’s in France.
Then, she romps through an additional battery of comparisons, contrasts, and conundrums that demonstrate the care with which she and Finckel plan a program. "All three pieces are from the same period," she says. "The Strauss and Grieg, which come before intermission, were written in 1883; the Franck was written in 1886. None of the pieces are played frequently. All of them are romantic."
The sonatas differ from each other in originating in contrasting stages in the life of their composers. Strauss was 17 or 18, Grieg was in his 40s, and Franck was in his 70s when they wrote the programmed pieces. "The Strauss sonata shows his young love," Wu Han says. "It is exciting and innocent, both at once, with boundless energy and enthusiasm. The Grieg sonata shows him at the height of his playing power as a pianist. The Franck is the work of a seasoned composer, smooth, thoughtful, and inward."
"Nobody knows for sure the instrument for which Franck wrote his sonata," Wu Han says. "It is usually played on violin. Perhaps it was written as a wedding present for the Belgian violinist Eugene Ysaye. Pablo Casals [the artist who put the cello on the map in the 20th century] believes it was originally for cello."
All three pieces on the Princeton program are available on ArtistLed, the internet recording label Wu Han and Finckel started in 1997 (www.artistled.com). Hungry to have full artistic and technical control of their CDs, they may spend several days tweaking the position of a microphone. Their first recording was the music of Edwin Finckel, David’s father. It sold out and has been re-issued. Avoiding the pressure and restrictions of commercial recording, ArtistLed works at a leisurely pace in order to meet exacting standards. After a decade of existence, the ArtistLed catalog consists of fewer than a dozen items, marrying precision and passion.
ArtistLed’s latest release features solo piano music by Wu Han. To be released in July is a piece by Pierre Jalbert, which was commissioned for the duo. ArtistLed’s next project is a recording of the two Franz Schubert piano trios, which the duo will play with Philip Setzer, one of the two Emerson Quartet violinists.
In addition to their leadership of Music@Menlo, and the recording enterprise ArtistLed, Wu Han and Finckel have been, since 2004, artistic directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, where they continue to adventure into new sorts of programming. A common notion of artistic leadership pervades their presence at all three organizations.
"To be an artistic director or leader," Wu Han says, "you should be able to provide a vision that gets you so excited you have the irresistible enthusiasm that carries everybody with you. We don’t read reviews or audience surveys, because we don’t want to become followers. We hope to create a sense of trust and confidence between us and the audience so that they come and allow us to take chances in programming and performing. We’re always pushing ourselves to be on the edge. In Princeton, for instance, we’re putting on a very unconventional program with three romantic works. People trust us to explore. There are endless possibilities for putting art together. We feel like the curators of a very large museum. You can put very different pieces on one program if you have a central thread."
Conscious of their dual role as both administrators and performers, Wu Han says, "The guiding principle in our various activities is music. It’s a constant quest for quality, and perfection, and a desire to communicate through programmatic ideas or performance. That’s the basic DNA of our life. It doesn’t change whether we’re administrators or performers. As performers, we do programming naturally. With the duo, it’s easy. We just set three or four programs and give presenters a choice."
Making the transition from performing to administering was not difficult for the pair. Their first stint as administrators was at the La Jolla, CA, Summerfest, where they spent three years as artistic directors. "We go to so many festivals and we’re always interested in how people do programming. When we started our administrative jobs, we found we had joyous, boundless ideas of how to put together programs that have a central idea."
Born in Taipei, Taiwan, to a policeman and his wife, Wu Han, 49, is one of four children. She met only child David Finckel, 56, her future husband, at Hartford’s Hartt School of Music. She was a student; the Emerson Quartet, where Finckel plays cello, was in residence at the school. In 1982 Wu Han won a competition, entitling her to play the Robert Schumann Quintet with the Emerson. After the performance, Finckel asked her to play with him as he prepared for the New England Conservatory’s first Piatigorsky competition; he won.
"There was something special about our playing together from the beginning," Wu Han says. "After our first performance people asked, `Are you married?’ We were astounded. We played together a long time before we were in love." The couple married in 1985. Their daughter, Lilian, will soon be 14.
"The duo is the bedrock of our life," Wu Han says. "It’s something very private and very special. We never have to talk very much. We operate on mutual respect. We don’t see each other often because of our concert schedules. Unlike performances that take you away from the family, playing duo brings us together. We’re very lucky. The duo plays 30 to 40 concerts a year, and they fit into the Emerson schedule."
Four pieces have been written for the duo, and another is in process. "We can leave some repertory for the next generation," Wu Han says. The compositions include Bruce Adolphe’s "Couple," a sonata by Lara Auerbach, a double concerto by Gabriela Frank, and the Jalbert piece to be released by ArtistLed in July. George Tsontakis’ cello sonata is due to appear in 2009.
Professionally and domestically, Finckel and Wu Han are a team. "What’s helpful in this household," she says, "is that I know the piano, and he knows the strings, but we’re both learning every day. The more research we do, the more exciting it gets. It comes from the power of the genre, the music, and the creativity of the composers."
Wu Han’s vivid concert dress brings visual excitement to her performances. "I’m a boring person," she says. "I have black hair and a flat face. When the audience comes into a concert, they’re looking for an experience. I enjoy colorful clothes and funky shoes. I’m lucky to be woman and able to express myself. I enjoy going on stage and being a little different. I want to be comfortable. I don’t like these dresses where I have to suck my stomach in all the time."
"I wear loose clothes, and designed some of them myself," Wu Han says. "I started when I was very pregnant with Lilian. I performed until the ninth month, and went back to performing four weeks after she was born. Those clothes are practical. They’re silk, and so light. They’re bright and cheerful. I can bunch them up, and have room in my luggage for Lilian’s books and toys when she travels with us."
Lilian is about to enter high school. Her admittedly unbiased mother says, "She is one of the most fantastic kids I have ever known. She’s kindhearted and considerate. She’s smart. She plays piano quite well, and a bit of violin. She’s thinking of switching to viola. She does modern dance choreography with Ellen Robbins at the Dance Theater Workshop in Manhattan. It’s an extraordinary program for young choreographers. Lilian joined when she was seven. Ellen demands that all participants come up each year with a complete dance, for which they choose their own music, costumes, and lighting. There’s a public concert each May."
Since Lilian was born, Wu Han has been managing on about five hours of sleep a night. "Once you have a kid, it cuts down on your sleeping time," she says. "Before she was born I slept six or seven hours a night. I don’t like to sleep too much; it’s kind of boring."
Even with her minimal demands for sleep, Wu Han employs assistants to help her manage her commitments to Music@Menlo, ArtistLed, and the Chamber Music Society. "We have three people helping us just to get from one place to the other," she says. "I remember telling David that if I have to run three organizations myself, I’m moving to assisted living early. I want to use my time to play piano, think about programming, and spend time with my daughter. But I do miss cooking."
I interview Wu Han on a special day, and she is indulging herself. "Today is my day off," she says. "I have short ribs cooking. I have lots of great recipes."
David Finckel and Wu Han, Monday, February 4, 8 p.m. McCarter Theater, 91 University Place. Chamber music presented by Finckel on cello and Han on piano. $35 to $38. 609-258-2787.