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Trusting the unfamiliar

img  Tobias Fischer

To many aspiring artists, a career in classical music can seem slightly intimidating and full of potential pitfalls and risks. To David Finckel, conversely, it has always seemed full of opportunities. In 1979, at the age of 27, Finckel joined the Emerson String Quartet, a still young, but promising ensemble set up a mere three years earlier. It would turn out to be a career- and life-changing decision. Over the course of Finckel's tenure with the Emersons, the four piece would turn into one of the leading string quartets, clock in performances at the leading concert halls across the globe and record integral cycles of the Beethoven-, Bartók-, Mendelssohn- and Shostakovich string quartets, all of which are today reverentially ranked among the finest ever produced. And yet, Finckel has never felt comfortable resting on his laurels. Instead, he has put his 'lucky breaks' with the Emerson String Quartet, as he modestly puts it himself in this interview, to his advantage. Over the course of three decades, he has established himself as a teacher and educator, as a festival organiser and curator, as a passionate performer of the classics and a formidable advocate of contemporary repertoire. Dabbling his feet in a variety of side-projects, Finckel would also champion the piano-cello repertoire with his wife Wu Han and found his own label, aptly titled ArtistLed – a breakthrough achievement in the otherwise top-down-oriented classical music business. To anyone familiar with these activities, Finckel's recent decision to end his involvement with the Emersons in favour of his duo with Wu Han can hardly register as a surprise. Outsiders, on the other hand, may have been perplexed that anyone should give up a safe retirement plan in favour of touring complex and challenging programs such as the complete Beethoven cello sonatas.  And yet, everything is explained in the moment of performance. When I saw Finckel play with Wu Han at the chamber music hall of the Berliner Philharmonie, it wasn't just their deep, multi-tiered interpretation, which hit a nerve. It was the interaction between the performers, a wordless chemistry - sometimes expressed in a mere sideways glance, a raised eyebrow or the arch described by Han's hand in mid-air over the piano - which made the music come alive, which made you feel as though these two artists, even after decades of performing together, could still surprise each other. Yes, the classical music scene can seem intimidating and full of potential pitfalls and risks. But none of that matters if you're on a mission.

In our interview with David Finckel, we speak about the changes between 1979 and today, the pleasure of continuing to perform music after all these years and the challenges of the Beethoven cello sonatas.

You left the Emerson String Quartet at the end of the 2012/2013 concert season after more than three decades. How did the music scene then compare with the one today?
Of course in 1979 there was a quite a different infrastructure for classical music. It was perhaps just as different in 1959. Without going into unnecessary detail, we do not see now the same kind of music service industry that existed then: the multiple classically-focused recording labels, the powerful, influential managements; nor do we see as many financially secure institutions such as orchestras - especially in the United States - and universities with extensive music departments. We also see fewer concert presenters with the funds to do large projects. The Emerson Quartet had lucky breaks: our contract with Deutsche Grammophon, our invitation to the prestigious Concerto Winderstein and IMG Artists rosters, our employment by  first the Hartt School of Music and more recently by Stony Brook University. In addition, we worked with presenters who during the 1980’s and 90’s had the funds to present entire Beethoven quartet cycles and other comprehensive projects. Presenters with that kind of wherewithal are far fewer now, and younger groups suffer from the lack of essential experience those opportunities provide.

In 1997, you founded your own production company ArtistLed. What has the experience been like so far?
I have not one particle of doubt that given the people we have chosen to work with, and the impossibly rigorous standards we impose on ourselves, that we can produce a recording of our own that reflects our honest, best efforts. The biggest challenge with independent productions is establishing credibility, and I feel this problem will only get worse as the world becomes increasingly reliant on amateur rather than expert opinions. My prediction is that someday soon the world is going to wake up hungry for editorial authority and control, when there’s just so much stuff out there that it’s impossible to decide for yourself. I, for one, would always rather have an expert choose the wine for me at a special meal.

You're a constant traveler. What have been some of the most inspiring classical music related projects you've witnessed recently?
Wonderful things turn up everywhere, and it’s always extraordinary people who are behind them. The chamber music industry, in my view, is largely driven by individuals rather than institutions, as chamber music is such a personal listening experience, and to some extent an acquired taste, as it has none of the surface attraction of opera or even of a large orchestra. And it is those individuals in cities large and small whose passion, determination, ingenuity and often financial contributions are what cause music to happen in their communities. They are everywhere, and when they are young – well, that’s the future of our art right there, as conservatories the world over are cranking out phenomenally capable players day by day, and they are all eager and ready to perform.

In the press release to your current tour, you've described the Beethoven cello sonatas as not just an artistic highlight, but a personal milestone as well. Do you still remember the first time you played them and the effect the music had on you? Can you tell me about both aspects, please – the relevance of the music for you personally and your take on the status of the cycle within Beethoven's oeuvre?
Wu Han and I pieced our Beethoven cycle over the first ten years of our relationship, but I had already performed the pieces with a variety of different pianists before I met her. When this program became a mainstay of our repertoire it was certainly a milestone in our duo career. When you play and record pieces that everyone else plays, records and knows, especially an important cycle such as this, you have a choice. You are either going to do it just until you get it done and out, or you are going to put so much back-breaking work into it that at the end of day you can stand up and say: “Yes, this is exactly how we think these works should sound“, and that takes a lot of courage. Of course that was our attitude, as it is about all our recordings, and that’s why we needed the ArtistLed structure to support that idealism. As far as the music itself goes, would it suffice to say that Beethoven is my desert-island composer, that if there were one person I could meet in the afterlife I would choose him? My respect for his art is exceeded by none other, and my personal connection to his music is on the deepest and most natural level. I feel that I innately understand what is behind every note he wrote, and the skill to articulate that in words has become a recent passion of my teaching career.

You already recorded the sonatas as far back as 1998. How do you look back at this first recording today?
I have never had a problem listening to my earlier recordings. They always sound better than I remember them. Aren’t I lucky? It must be that I just worked so damned hard on them that I forgot about it. What a pleasant surprise. My relationship with the pieces has not changed, except to say that as we grow more experienced and learn more music, we are changing all the time, so of course our relationship changes in some way, like in a marriage. After you’ve had children, for example, it’s different but the primary reasons for your relationship are still alive.

The amount of recordings available for many compositions can be confusing and intimidating. From your perspective, how has this affected and changed the art of interpretation?
As I said earlier, intelligent, experienced and trustworthy editorial presence in the classical music industry is something both needed and, I feel, on the way. It’s fairly easy for a good musician, who knows a score really well, to tell from listening to a recording whether the performer is trying to serve the composer or himself. I’ve heard many performances miss the mark because the musicians felt compelled to do it differently, to be provocative, for the sake of doing it. And I don’t believe in that approach – I don’t teach it, and I don’t allow it on my stages. We look for musicians deeply passionate who are at the service of the composer, their colleagues, the public and no one else.

You've refined your current interpretation of the Beethoven cello sonatas for years. What's the effect and importance of working on the same piece with the same person over such a long time?
If you are a truly great chef you are always going to adjust your signature recipes to suit your current taste. Something you may have tasted – or heard if talk about music – may have influenced you. When you have the same partner, the adjustments can sometimes be made without even talking about it. They simply happen in the concert or rehearsal, and we each know it. I know exactly where Wu Han is coming from musically, all the time, and she knows me, and it’s been like that since Day 1 of our duo. Don’t ask me why.

You've mentioned that audience members may 'hear Beethoven differently' after enjoying the entire cycle performed on one night. In which way, specifically?
It’s true that every context in which a piece is heard affects the way it sounds. Beethoven is going to sound different after Debussy than it sounds after Beethoven. And middle Beethoven sounds different after early, and late different after middle. Because Beethoven changed so much during his life, and his cycles like the piano sonatas, cello sonatas and symphonies reflect such development, it’s a tremendous experience to hear his works juxtaposed. You can grow at an accelerated pace along with him, and in this cello cycle program, you can progress almost two decades in two and a half hours. And for the performers, it is a very visceral journey, where you more or less become the composer in order to portray him personally and accurately.

Listening to 2,5 hours of music can be demanding, especially at a time when most media and events are working with ever smaller cells of information. Are you, too, witnessing a reduction in the attention span in your audiences?
Of course, longer attention spans are less demanded today, especially by television, not to mention the hunger for multi-tasking that is fueled also by popular media. It is impossible to watch a television news program today without reading some news running in print below the newscaster who is talking about something completely different. That going to a classical music is essentially a uni-input experience doesn’t help sell the experience to a society increasingly demanding multi-channel entertainment. But I still see a great willingness for people of all ages – even the uninitiated – to try new things, and to spend longer times doing it than we would expect. Recently the audiences here in New York for the Globe Theater’s productions of Twelfth Night and Richard the III were filled with young people who didn’t budge, listened intently to often-difficult-digest language, and who stood and cheered at the end. So how does that happen? There was no problem there with attention span. I personally think it’s a matter of personal choice, how long your attention span lasts.

You're a performer, head of your own record label and festival organiser – among others. When you're immersed in music all day the way you are, does it become less fascinating – because you understand the way certain things work – or even more mysterious? What are some of the fundamental insights you gain about music if you're constantly surrounded by it?
This is quite a question and it would take me longer to do justice to it than you have to wait for my responses. Directly responding to your possibilities: No, it is not less fascinating but more so. I would say that rather than becoming more mysterious it becomes more magical, more extraordinary. The other day I listened to a CD of performances by one of the great one-time residents of Berlin, the violinist Fritz Kreisler, and it provoke questions that I cannot readily answer: just what is so intoxicating about his rhythm, how does he make such a sweet and beautiful sound? These are mysteries that become the opportunities for artists to solve – that is one way we grow and develop.

What I am absolutely sure of that has changed in me over the years is the degree to which I am certain of value of music in society. I’ve seen way too many instance of lives changed, of communities and relationships born, and pure joy and good brought about through the performance of great music. And I am more sure of other things as well. One, that quality will speak for itself eventually if you let it. And two, that not all music is created equal, which is very contrary to the popular thinking today. At least, in the time I have left to live, there is no way I want to spend any of it listening to, learning, performing or presenting music that I don’t absolutely believe in. It’s personal, but I like music that has a lot of valuable information in it, that’s written with great skill and that I can admire on an intellectual as well as a visceral level. That’s how I’m going to spend my time, and it’s everyone’s right to decide for themselves what kind of music they like and what they want to listen to. Music takes time, you can’t walk away from it in a concert like you can walk away from a painting in a museum. So people have to make those choices up front. And as a presenter, that’s where our great opportunity lies: as we build trust with our audiences, they will increasingly try unfamiliar kinds of music just because we recommend it. And that way we can open new worlds to listeners. But the reason they trust us is because we are faithful to our own convictions. It’s a promise we make to them, and when and if they become tired of our tastes, we’ll just move on with no hard feelings. That’s the way it works in the arts, from what I’ve seen.

By Tobias Fischer
Image by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

Homepage: David Finckel & Wu Han
Homepage: ArtistLed Recordings