David Finckel and Wu Han find the right balance on and off the stage

Tue Feb 16, 2010 at 4:00 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

For one musician, managing the myriad timing and logistical details of rehearsal, performance, and travel can be a daunting task.

So imagine the situation when two people with peripatetic schedules in nonparallel universes try to squeeze in a joint interview from different time zones.

Fortunately, David Finckel and Wu Han are as flexible and communicative in conversation as they are on the concert platform. Though there were some initial technical issues, as the Taiwanese pianist tried to get her on-the-road cellist husband on a conference line from their office at Lincoln Center.

“Hi! Just a second,” Wu Han says brightly. “We’ve only worked here five years,” she adds by way of apology, “and I haven’t figured out the phone yet. Playing piano is easier, I tell you.”

Soon all technical challenges are conquered and Wu Han and Finckel talk about music, their lives, and Franz Schubert’s extraordinary piano trios—works that the two, with violinist Philip Setzer, will bring to the University of Chicago Presents series Friday night at Mandel Hall.

For Wu Han, performing the two Schubert trios—works that like the late piano sonatas and the great C major String Quintet come from the end of the composer’s short life—is not only an enriching musical experience but an honor.

“This music really is one of the greatest achievements in history,” says the pianist. “Just two masterworks and each one feels like climbing Mount Everest. And we have to climb two of them in one night.”

“The language itself is organized yet its complicated,” she adds. “Like all of Schubert’s music, it always has a double meaning—happiness and sadness in the same phrase. That’s what makes this music so incredible and so interesting to play. It’s a lifetime study, and I am humbled by it all the time.”

Franz Schubert

Finckel has, of course, been playing Schubert’s chamber masterworks his entire professional life with the Emerson String Quartet. Yet while he has also performed the piano trios, it’s only recently, with his wife and Emerson violinist Setzer, that he has dug as deeply into them.

“This is kind of a culmination for me of my study of Schubert, having played and recorded all the major quartets and the Trout Quintet and the Arpeggione Sonata,” says Finckel. “I learned the trios early on but I never played them as extensively or in as committed a fashion as I am now.

Like Wu Han, Finckel believes the Piano Trio in B flat and Piano Trio in E flat constitute two of the great cornerstones in the chamber repertoire.

“The fact that they are coming from his last year or two makes them even more of an experience, especially knowing he was only 31 years old [when he died],” says Finckel. “It’s the eternal question—whether a sense of impending, inevitable death accelerates one to a kind of maturity and otherworldliness that some one like Schubert achieved at that age.”

Finckel is best known as the anchor of the Emersons, yet he spends equal time performing solo recitals and duos with his wife, as well as trios as on the present 15-city Schubert tour.

And while he brings the Emerson’s familiar brand of acute focus and polished intensity to his non-quartet performances, he finds playing in other ensembles offers varied and unique experiences.

“It’s very different,” says Finckel. “Every time you play a piece of music, it’s a different situation. Playing with Wu Han is different than playing with the other three guys. I’m not saying it’s better or worse, it’s just very different.”

For one thing, a more soloistic appearance requires a different type of “mental activity” and preparation. “If I approached a sonata recital with the same mindset and the same priorities that I approached a quartet concert, I don’t think it would be successful.”

Adding a piano to any chamber setup changes the equation completely. “When I’m playing in a piano trio I set my pitch to that of the piano. But when I’m playing in the quartet, the cello really sets the pitch. So that’s two hugely different responsibilities right there.”

“Also, when I’m in a piano trio, there’s only one other string voice to work with. So, it’s not so much a matter of blending into something, than it is being an equal partner in a two-part string dialogue, with the piano role, which is enormous. The whole chemistry is different.”

In addition to their performances together and apart, Wu Han and Finckel are kept busy as artistic directors of two bicoastal festivals: Music@Menlo, a three-week summer chamber music festival they founded seven years ago in the San Francisco Bay area; and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, a post they took up in 2004.

As a presenter who is also a performer, Finckel notes that programming—summer festivals, in particular—calls for an array of repertoire, yet they often prefer to explore just a single composer’s life and work.

“Our approach is what we call an inch wide and a mile deep,” he says. “We prefer to go deeply into the music. You know, if you stick your nose into a Beethoven string quartet, you can stay there for three weeks and never run out of incredible discoveries.”

Finckel and Wu Han have also been in the vanguard of classical artists producing their own recordings with the duo’s ArtistLed label, now in its eleventh year.

“It’s a label that really speaks to artistic freedom,” says the pianist. “We were the first internet-direct company by [classical] musicians before the whole trend started. Every time we’ve released something we’ve made our expenses back. And nobody can drop me from my own label,” she laughs.

While many of the releases feature Wu Han and Finckel in cornerstone sonatas for cello and piano, there is also the recent Schubert trio disc with Setzer, Derek Han playing Mozart piano concertos, and a disc of music by the cellist’s father, Edwin Finckel.

“We didn’t want to just record repertoire that a recording company dictates,” said Wu Han. “We do our own sort of idealistic production and use the internet as a way to reach a new audience.”

Among the most satisfying releases for the couple is a disc of cello and piano music commissioned for them by composers Pierre Jalbert, George Tsontakis, Lera Auerbach and Bruce Adolphe.

“It’s a project that has taken some time but we did collect four really terrific pieces,” says Finckel. “I think its important for the future that the people for whom a work is written do a recording as a historical record. And several of these works are already being performed by other cellists in different places around the world and, for us, nothing could be more gratifying.”

The couple, who live in New York, are about to mark their 25th anniversary. They met at the Hartt School of Music in Connecticut where Finckel was coaching chamber music and Wu Han was a newly arrived graduate student from Taipei.

In fact, they were performing colleagues for some time before the personal side of the relationship began to develop. “When we first started playing concerts, people would walk up to us and say, ‘Are you guys married?’ and we would just laugh,” says Wu Han.

“I liked her playing, we began playing together, and then, after some years, one thing led to another,” says Finckel.

“But I think the [relationship] was always incredibly strong,” she adds. “And because we started out as professional colleagues, even today it’s easy to go back to those roles in rehearsals.

“As soon as the music starts, it’s quite spectacular in terms of the chemistry and the communication. We’re very, very lucky to have that.”

David Finckel, Wu Han, and Philip Setzer perform Schubert’s Pianos Trio in B flat and Piano Trio in E flat 7:30 p.m. Friday at Mandel Hall. Call 773-702-8068 or go to the University of Chicago Presents website.

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