The 2012 Honorees

By Stuart Isacoff

This irrepressible husband and wife team has initiated a quiet revolution in music often regarded as too rarefied to attract a large following. They are changing that perception and garnering new fans.

Every winner of Musical America’s prestigious “Musician of the Year” Award is a distinguished master of the craft, and this year’s recipients, cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han, are no exceptions. He was a protégé of Mstislav Rostropovich; she, a veteran of top-flight musical training grounds like Aspen and Marlboro. Critics have praised the boldness, imagination, and collaborative intimacy of their work—often trumpeting his laser-like focus and her innate spark.

But performing is merely a starting point for this irrepressible husband and wife team, whose résumé includes the stewardship of important arts organizations like the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and Music@Menlo; a history of innovation in programming, recording, and outreach; and a commitment to fostering young talent. Along the way, they have built audiences and shaped a new wave of players. To call them overachievers would be an understatement.

Remarkably, they have done it all in a genre that has often been regarded as too rarified and intimate to attract a sizeable following. Chamber music thrives on closeness, like good conversation. Contrast this with the hi-octane appeal of an orchestra at full throttle, or the dramatic spectacles of grand opera. Singing the praises of chamber music has often seemed roughly equivalent to encouraging people to eat their spinach. But over the last decade, David Finckel and Wu Han have initiated a quiet revolution, changing that perception and garnering new fans. And they have done it through sheer determination and elbow grease.

It wasn’t always easy, especially before they joined forces. David Finckel was just another struggling musician, playing with a chamber orchestra in Philadelphia and living with his parents in New Jersey, when fellow cellist Julian Fifer offered advice on breaking into the New York scene: If people don’t see you eating cold sesame noodles at Empire Szechuan on 97th Street, they won’t know you are available for work. “So I moved one block away from the restaurant,” he remembers. It took a year and a half, he reports, before he was in the Emerson String Quartet. He could hardly believe his luck.

Wu Han had a more strenuous journey. She worked intensely in Taiwan under difficult circumstances, became the best in her class, but was refused permission to travel to the United States before the age of 20. Yet, these two were destined to meet. At the Hartt School in Connecticut, where David was on the faculty and Wu Han had enrolled as a student, they played together for mere minutes before encountering both St. Cecilia and Cupid. “I will never forget that moment,” comments the cellist. “She wore overalls and sneakers. She smoked. She knew only Chinese. But as soon as she played piano, it was like we spoke the same language.” It marked the beginning of a new life path for both of them. And this year they are celebrating the 30th anniversary of that musical union.

“I was already a member of the Emerson, with 60 concerts a season (a number that later increased), recording contracts, and European tours,” recalls Finckel, who still does most of the talking. “But Wu Han and I had other things we wanted to accomplish. So we made our own way: We started giving duo concerts and eventually formed a trio with Emerson violinist Phil Setzer. We found a remarkable audio engineer, Da-Hong Seetoo, began recording repertoire that interested us—even without any means to distribute the discs—and then created ArtistLed, the first Internet-based CD company. When we got a call out of the blue in 1997 to run the La Jolla Summerfest, we realized we had millions of ideas we wanted to try. Eventually, it gave us the impetus to create an entirely new festival in 2003—Music@Menlo.”

They have seized every opportunity along the way, no matter how serendipitous. When one of their recordings was attached to BBC Music Magazine’s cover in 1997, 250,000 music lovers were suddenly introduced to their artistry. “We wondered if we should try to get a big label interested, or to stick out our necks and offer our recordings on the Internet. Thank God we decided to keep control of everything and
to launch ArtistLed.” They see that independent path as an important model, particularly for the next generation. “The industry is more confusing than it used to be,” says Finckel. “Navigating through the new waters is something we had to learn ourselves. It’s ironic: Most of the time we were swimming alone, and now we find ourselves at the center of things.”

Each achievement became a steppingstone. In 2004, they brought the lessons of their experiences at La Jolla and Music@Menlo to the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. The institution was, says Executive Director Norma Hurlburt, already on a solid footing, but under their tutelage it clearly switched into a higher gear.

The CMS II program, which features younger musicians, was expanded, and its members were for the first time integrated into ensembles with more experienced veterans. Season composers were commissioned, and master classes added to the schedule. Touring was increased, with residencies in Taiwan, Korea, and Germany. This past year saw the first Chamber Music Society performances in England—a three-concert series at Wigmore Hall.

An inveterate tinkerer, Finckel initiated the use of new technology, with online radio streaming, special videos, Facebook, Twitter, and iPhone applications. The organization’s national radio series went from 13 one-hour programs to 26, and recording activities exploded, including a Deutsche Grammophon live download series and the launch of an in-house label.

In each area, Finckel and Wu Han have been determinedly hands-on, and willing to take risks. For example, last year they introduced a series called “Late Night Rose,” in which concerts normally offered in the Society’s Rose Studio at 6:30 PM are repeated at 9:30, but with new twists: At the later show, an engaging host introduces the music selections, and patrons are seated at candle-lit tables and given a glass of wine. It has been a remarkable success.

However, the Chamber Music Society’s growth, says Hurlburt, is not attributable to any particular program as much as to the personal dynamic that David Finckel and Wu Han have brought to the institution. “It’s their happiness with the music, with each other, with what they’re doing,” she explains. “And their sense that it can go all over the world—the more the merrier. Their exuberance knows no bounds.”

Members of CMS II, like pianist Alessio Bax, talk of their experience as “a luxury. Despite David and Wu Han’s various commitments—and each one leads a life equivalent to at least three other people—they do everything possible to make you comfortable: forming ensembles in ways that combine energy and experience, giving constant feedback and advice. If anything goes wrong,” he concludes, “you have only
yourself to blame.”

As dedicated as they are to the Chamber Music Society, Music@Menlo—something they created out of thin air—is surely the crown jewel of their endeavors. This thriving festival and school in California’s Silicon Valley, founded in 2002, presents stellar performances, open rehearsals, and public lectures; offers lessons and ensemble coaching for young students; and trains international musicians on the
verge of major careers.

How does one launch such a major enterprise? Finckel and Wu Han’s approach was a textbook lesson. “They came to see me and my late husband, Peter,” remembers Music@Menlo Board Member Kathy Henschel. “They were looking for support. And for us, it was ‘love at first chat.’ They had such a clear focus: ‘This is what it will look like, this is what we will offer. The art will be first class, there will be no prima donnas, we’ll educate both kids and audiences, the atmosphere will be collaborative and collegial.’ A picture of the whole organization seemed to emerge instantly before us—as Schumann said of Brahms—like Athena, ‘springing fully armed from the head of Zeus.’”

“Most festivals start out with concerts, eventually add education, and then branch out into media,” says Wu Han. “We did it backwards: We insisted on having everything at once.” “They think in very comprehensive terms,” says Ara Guzelimian, dean and provost of the Juilliard School and a seasoned artistic administrator. “The audience sees the young musicians being trained, and they learn about the music. The lectures are an integral part of the festival. All the elements together create a magical,  musical community of intense focus.”

At the opening weekend of Music@Menlo’s summer program last July, as a group of international students rehearsed a program of Schubert and Brahms, David Finckel made suggestions to the string players about using vibrato to create a more beautiful blending, while Wu Han pointed out subtle interpretive errors—like arriving at a crescendo too early—and offered tips to the pianist and cellist on how to coordinate their attacks so that entrances would be cleaner. All the while, Finckel also toyed with various microphone placements.

It’s clear that the technology bug is in his blood. He is forever finding ways to use it in the service of a musical or educational end. “He’s the only person I know who recorded a cello lesson in an airplane toilet at 36,000 feet,” says Guzelimian, referring to one of the cellist’s 100 short video programs—shot and edited in such diverse locations as hotel rooms, empty concert stages, the streets of St. Petersburg, and, yes, an airplane toilet (a reprieve from the tedium of travel)—all posted on his Web site (, or

The same relentless drive and unerring focus evident in those video lessons made Menlo an intricate, finely calibrated organism. Its separate elements include a rigorous audition process: “Little pieces of paper with the names of musicians fill out our dining room table at home,” says Wu Han, “while we try to put together the right mix of instrumentalists, temperaments, and levels of experience. We take pictures of the tabletop in case someone accidentally opens a window and they all blow away. "Students are carefully assessed, placed in an ensemble, and given specific repertoire to learn. Even the interns receive intense training and create their own memoirs from their Menlo encounters—recording what worked and what didn’t—to pass on to the next generation of participants. One gets the feeling that should a young student sniffle, David Finckel and Wu Han would show up within minutes with a box of tissues.

What they have created is unique, says pianist Menahem Pressler, an icon of the chamber-music world and a longstanding supporter. “I used to be famous for having so much energy,” he adds, “but I don’t think I can compare with David.” In truth, one can’t help but wonder about the source of that seemingly bottomless well of inspiration. As it turns out, their personal biographies reveal ways in which their
early experiences set the stage for what was to come.

Several formative moments have stayed with David Finckel; one was receiving his first cello at the age of ten, and struggling for a couple of years afterward to develop a natural vibrato. Another was when an early teacher, Mary Gili, finally set things right. “She gave me an exercise of shifting in halfsteps, and then had me use the same wrist motion while staying in one place. She sounded beautiful, and suddenly I could sound like her. After that, I couldn’t put the instrument down. It was my first brush with teaching and technology, and finding a logical way to fix a problem.”

Then came the visceral experience of hearing a recording by Mstislav Rostropovich. “I felt that I was born with that voice in my head.” From that point on, he says, “I never thought of doing anything else with my life.”

Rostropovich would eventually play a major role in his life. But there were other influential byways, including the summer music camp in Vermont started by his father, Edwin, and the fact that he began to record himself even while still in his teens. (“I was puzzled when we got to La Jolla,” he says, “about why it felt so familiar. Then I remembered the summer camp.”) As a young fan, he first met the celebrated
cellist and conductor while standing at the Carnegie Hall stage door, trying to catch a glimpse of his hero. “My mother and I expected to wait for a very long time,” he remembers. Suddenly, a door flew open and it was Rostropovich wearing a big fur coat and fur hat, making an escape. He spotted us, put his cello down, placed his music on the cello, took off his hat and extended his hand. ‘Thank you for coming to my concert,’ he said. I couldn’t believe it.” The youngster soon began to travel by bus from city to city to see Rostropovich perform, standing in line after those concerts night after night; Rostropovich noticed, of course, and eventually the two bonded. “I played for him, and he never asked for a thing in return,” recalls Finckel. “I really learned how to play the cello by preparing so diligently for those lessons, because it
felt like such a responsibility.”

Growing up in Taiwan, Wu Han faced very different circumstances. “We were very poor,” she remembers. Her father, a policeman, was an unpredictable character—going to the market to buy clothes and returning home with a phonograph and stack of LPs—which he proceeded to play day and night; ordering a piano without telling his wife (“she tried to stop the delivery, but the movers had already brought it up two flights of stairs”); assigning one octave of the instrument to each of his children, in the
hope they would win scholarships to a local music school run by Belgian nuns and missionaries. “My mother found a piano teacher,” she says, “but we couldn’t pay for lessons, so instead he came to eat dinner every night.” When Wu Han was accepted at the school, the training turned out to be rigorous (“we tried everything to escape,” she remembers, “even climbing the walls”). But as a double major in piano
and viola she was hugely disciplined (“I fell so madly in love with music that I became obsessive,” she claims), turned into a spectacular sight-reader, and was soon playing concertos on short notice. “I was given only two days’ notice to learn the Mozart K. 466,” she remembers. And she managed to do it.

When they met at the Hartt School in 1982, she had won a competition to perform with the Emerson. Verbal communication was not possible, but it hardly mattered. “The sparks kicked in between two notes in the Schumann Quintet,” remembers Finckel, “a G to an A, in the first cello solo in the exposition of the first movement.” (As he related this, both musicians began to sing the piece.) “She was the first pianist ever to allow me the little extra time needed for the note to bloom at the top. I will never forget that moment: It was like she was inside my head. After that, I couldn’t get her out of my mind.” They were married in 1985.

Shortly thereafter, she began to spread her wings. “I was told to go to Aspen and Marlboro,” she recounts. “I didn’t know what these places were.” Mentors like Lilian Kallir and Leon Fleisher helped point her in the right direction. When she auditioned for Rudolf Serkin—for a full two hours—he informed her that there was no room at the Marlboro Festival. “But I kept calling,” she says. “Finally he told me I could come.”

In subsequent years, their shared endeavors included an invitation from Isaac Stern to teach in Jerusalem. “That’s when I learned that Wu Han is one of the most fantastic coaches I’ve even seen,” says Finckel. “The way she manages to be tough and yet never discouraging to kids is a great gift.” Then Stern passed away, and those Jerusalem encounters stopped. “You wake up one morning and realize there are shoes to fill,” says Finckel, “because someone has to do the work. This business takes maintenance, care, propulsion, creativity—it’s not just going to go on by itself.”

“We kept hearing about how classical music was dying,” explains Wu Han, “and said, ‘if this is a problem, let’s do something about it.’” Concludes Finckel, “passing the torch became a huge priority in our lives. There is nothing more gratifying. We are in a blessed position.”

And so are all of those lucky students. •

Stuart Isacoff is on the faculty of the Purchase College Conservatory of Music. His latest book is A Natural History of the Piano: The Instrument, The Music, The Musicians—From Mozart to Modern Jazz and Everything in Between (Knopf ).


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