The magazine Musical America had it right. Last year, for the first time in the 52 years it has been giving Musician of the Year awards, it honored two musicians on its cover: the husband and wife team of pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel.
It’s a fitting gesture for a couple who regard music as a way of life. Whether playing on the world’s stages, planning hundreds of programs, directing music festivals or chamber music organizations, researching or commissioning composers, or running their own record label, they always have something brewing.
They have their own careers. After 34 years with the Grammy Award-winning Emerson String Quartet, Finckel will retire this fall; Wu Han has always concertized as a soloist or in a small chamber music setting. In the past decade, however, they’ve worked together as co-artistic directors to found the Music@Menlo summer festival, now in its 10th season, and to oversee the Chamber Music Society at Lincoln Center (since 2004).
WHEN: 3 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Union College Memorial Chapel
HOW MUCH: $25, $10
MORE INFO: 388-6080, www.unioncollegeconcerts.org
These responsibilities, which always include several of their performances, have fueled their imaginations to create ever more connections throughout the world. For them, the thought becomes the deed.
Finckel will join the Juilliard School’s faculty; write an arts column for the Huffington Post — an online magazine; begin a chamber music study program at the Aspen Music Festival, where he’ll also teach privately; and play/teach at three programs in South Korea, one of which has a young musician component. Most of these are new this season.
For Wu Han, there are four major projects for CMS that include 100 events, 26 radio programs, live streaming and two disc releases on their ArtistLed label. There are also CMS’ return to London’s Wigmore Hall — a new partnership; seven new satellite series to include South America; and a return to Germany’s Mecklenburg-Vorpommern Festival. She’s also planning a solo disc; two cruises for major donors and three trips to the Far East.
For Sunday’s concert at Union College as part of the 41st International Festival of Chamber Music, violinist Philip Setzer, a member of the Emerson and a longtime friend, will join them in Dvorak’s two piano trios and Brahms’ Cello Sonata.
Wu Han found 30 minutes in her schedule for a chat.
Q: How do you and David manage to do all these things?
A: It helps that there are two of us at it and they are double directorships. But we have a great staff — there are three now at the home office. They take very good care of us. For instance, I had to put together eight months of repertoire that must be prepared, even down to page turnings. One of the staff ran around town collecting the music. This gave us time to practice, rehearse and do research.
Q: Where do you get your ideas for what to program?
A: I listen to a lot of CDs — tons. I listen to everything. I also go to a lot of concerts, even every night. I go to debut recitals looking for new talent or repertoire. If we do a season with a thematic idea, I do a lot of reading. I need to discover new things. Along the way I find repertoire that I want to learn. You have to keep fresh with a supply of new ideas. But it keeps us in touch with what’s going on and sometimes I make suggestions to other artists.
Q: How did the trio with both of you and Phil get together?
A: Thirty years ago it used to be Phil’s wife who played. But when they got divorced, I began playing with them. We all knew the trio repertoire from playing with others. One night, we had been drinking so much wine that we said if the Emerson didn’t take off, let’s do the trio. But, of course, the Emerson became quite successful and that idea was shelved.
Then, four years ago, David asked me if I wanted to do another CD and if there was any piece I wanted to do before I died. I said the Schubert trios. So David suggested it to Phil. You can’t play Schubert with people you don’t like and Phil is like a brother to us — he’s so sensitive. So we made a tape and sent it to our manager, who heard it — and put up 19 concerts in three weeks for us. We did those and weren’t planning to do more, but everyone wanted to rebook us.
So then we recorded the Mendelssohn trios. We’d known them since we were kids, so there was no pressure. And the same thing happened. So this year, David had always wanted to do the Dvorak, so we recorded those. He doesn’t know if there will be another season.
We’re not officially set up as a trio. It’s just getting together to do three weeks of concerts. But we get great reviews — and it’s music we love to do. We’re past trying to expand our repertoire and we don’t need to have to worry about making a living or hating each other after 40 weeks of concerts. Now, it’s doing a desert island situation — of showcasing the best of our playing.
Q: The intimate level of collaboration you and David have when you perform has been widely publicized. Would that not have been there if you hadn’t been married?
A: That playing intimacy has always been there even before we were romantically involved. I didn’t even speak English. Something unusual happens. Our first piece was Chopin’s Sonata and I knew what he wanted in the next phrase. We speak the same language. But we’re very careful with it. When we rehearse it’s professional. We don’t bring anything else into it. We keep it sacred.
Q: With such a packed schedule, what do you do to relax?
A: A lot of reading magazines and the New York Times. There’s no TV. I make cookies with my daughter, read biographies and I love business planning books. And I’m cleaning house [as on the day of the interview]. What a joy! There are zero routines.
Q: How does it feel to return to a hall that you’ve often performed in?
A: It’s like coming home. It was the first hall that ever booked me. The audiences are knowledgeable and I hope [they think] I’ve musically grown on that stage.