Chamber music champions: David Finckel and Wu Han

As two of the most talented chamber musicians performing today, David Finckel and Wu Han have a charisma and integrity that’s made them champions of the genre. 

The notion that chamber music is dying, still fiercely clung to by pessimists and doom-mongers, is one which makes Wu Han laugh. Speaking from London, the pianist and her husband and musical partner, cellist David Finckel, are on a quick and busy stopover between the US and Germany. The duo have just performed an evening concert in Central Park’s Naumburg Bandshell. Part of a Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center summer series, the programme saw an intimate, twilight recital of Mozart, Beethoven and Dvorák – and attracted a record audience of more than 2,000. ‘There were thousands of people there, listening in complete silence in the dusk,’ says Han cheerfully, ‘it was so beautiful.’

Meanwhile this summer’s Music@Menlo, the Californian festival and institute that Han and Finckel founded in 2003, saw record-breaking attendance and ticket sales. ‘People were queuing around the block waiting to get in,’ says Han. ‘It was extraordinary – there’s a frenzy for chamber music.’

From their vantage point as two of the most respected and talented figures of chamber music, the genre seems to be flourishing, despite its notoriety as difficult and elitist. Of course, the husband and wife duo have more to do with this movement than they’d like to let on; Han and Finckel are credited with quietly growing a larger following for the complex and intimate art form. And it’s not difficult to see why – as soloists they’re celebrated for their mastery; Han for her artistic imagination, Finckel for his technical skill. Together, they’re a formidable team, appealing to audiences with charm and charisma.

‘We’ve not been the recipients of endless lucky breaks. We’ve worked very hard on projects so that they would be done the way we believe they should’ – DF

The US-born cellist started out playing with a chamber orchestra in Philadelphia, before moving to New York and joining the renowned Emerson String Quartet, resulting in a 34-year collaboration that has been recognised with an impressive host of awards. Finckel met the Taiwanese pianist at The Hartt School in Connecticut; he was on the faculty and Han had enrolled as a student.

‘In the very beginning there was this chemistry,’ says Han. ‘I remember I barely spoke English when I first met David. I played with him and something just happened. I knew I could communicate with him through music, with this musical language we didn’t need words. In the early days before we were even involved [as a couple], people would come up to us and say, “Wow that was amazing, are you guys married?” And I was laughing, thinking – no way!’

The pair married after a few years, and have been playing together for more than 30 years. Immediate musical chemistry is one thing, says Han, sustaining it is another. ‘I think it’s like a good marriage, you have to have mutual respect and really work on that. We go into our rehearsals with intense concentration. I would never go into rehearsal with David without the proper inspiration and preparation, so we treat it very professionally. We really have to leave our personal feelings behind – like last night’s argument over who should do the dishes.’

Certainly, part of Han and Finckel’s appeal as stars and champions of chamber music is their independent spirit. In 1997 they launched the first exclusively online classical label, ArtistLed, and have always resisted the lure of big record companies.‘The two of us have always done things our own way,’ says Finckel. ‘We started ArtistLed because we felt it was the only way we were going to be able to make recordings as we wanted them to be, in terms of repertoire and quality. We’ve not been the recipients of endless lucky breaks. We’ve worked very hard and often in a solitary way on our music and projects so that they would be done the way we believe they should.’ It’s this sense of integrity that saw Finckel and Han jointly honoured with the Musical America Artist of the Year award in 2012.

Beyond the stage and studio, the pair have carved out roles as cultural entrepreneurs and arts administrators; they hold joint artistic directorships in New York at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, as well as at Chamber Music Today in Seoul. Music education is an increasingly important part of Han and Finckel’s careers; they regularly hold workshops and master classes for young players.

‘This music is so incredibly passionate and intimate, when you fall in love with it, it’s like an addiction and you can’t get out of it’ – WH

Was passing their passion and skill on to the next generation of chamber musicians something they had always planned to do? ‘In the early days of my career, I hardly knew what chamber music was,’ says Finckel, with a good-natured laugh. ‘It wasn’t before I was in my mid-to-late 20s that I began to realise what an incredible world chamber music is – the literature, the camaraderie, and also the learning process, that way of learning music where you work with a few people and take equal responsibility for how the music is going to come out. When we realised how chamber music is made and put together, we saw that that kind of music study would probably be the most meaningful for any young musician to have. Chamber music is a tool for teaching like no other. And not only is it technically challenging and intellectually challenging, it’s also some of the greatest music ever written.’

‘I came from the Far East, where chamber music is still in the early stages of realisation,’ says Han. ‘This music is so incredibly passionate and intimate, when you fall in love with it, it’s like an addiction and you can’t get out of it. When the audience enjoys chamber music, enjoys that intimacy and community, it’s so incredible. When chamber music is done right at the highest level, it’s really one of the most remarkable art forms.’

‘I think if something comes naturally to you, and you’re passionate about something, you should devote your time to it,’ she continues. ‘For us part of the reason we want to give that to the next generation is our genuine passion for this art form.’

This summer Finckel and Han led a new chamber programme for 12 students at the Aspen Music Festival and School in Colorado. ‘We’d always wanted to be able to do more to contribute to Aspen than just perform lots of concerts,’ says Finckel. ‘We wanted to bring our excitement for chamber music and working with young musicians there.’

The immersive training programme involved four trios comprising pianists, violinists and cellists, who were taught by Finckel and Han over a two-week period, culminating in a public performance. ‘We were able to select 12 kids who were of absolutely fantastic quality,’ says Finckel. ‘We coached them in a dedicated way for a finite period of time and brought them to a very high level.’

Han was similarly impressed by the young talents who took part in a Music@Menlo education programme in July. ‘I had two 14-year-olds play through the whole Rite of Spring. They were looking at each other, their ears were opening. They were responding to each other and learning that they need to practise really hard in order to have total control. It was just such a beautiful thing to watch.’

‘The most important thing for organising a successful [education] programme is actually understanding what chamber music is about, the equality of the group or a special chemistry… the level of cooperation, the sensitivity of a musician. Those are hugely important elements in terms of finding the kids’ strengths and weaknesses, and also in trying to get a sense of what kind of artist they are. That’s why you do chamber music very small, it’s a wonderful format.’

Yet times are tough for young players wanting to establish a career, and sheer skill is often not enough. Han and Finckel’s drive may be as important to emulate as their technique. ‘Be creative and go out and get your own audience, don’t wait around for the industry to help you; these are the things we’ve taught our kids in the last 10 years,’ says Han.

‘The music industry is constantly changing,’ adds Finckel, ‘and there are always new opportunities and new obstacles. The door that was open yesterday might not be open today. Yet if one looks around, there are other avenues towards a life in music that the determined and the creative will find. I think the trick for younger musicians increasingly is to be made aware that a career isn’t something that is going to automatically happen. You go to school, get good grades and practise really hard, but there may not necessarily be a management or record contract just waiting for you when you graduate. But you know, music students have known that to varying degrees for years now, and I think now we’re seeing a whole generation of young musicians who are beginning to talk about it, to think about it, to strategise, to plan their own paths and look for realistic opportunities that they feel will be within their grasp. Certainly now there are so many more avenues open for communication.’

While cultivating an audience through business savvy or a clever online campaign might be one part of a successful career, Han reminds her students that the music will always come first. ‘You could have the most fantastic publicity photos, the most glamorous bio, you could have all the social media bells and whistles, but what happens in the concert is still the most important thing. The craftsmanship, the way you communicate, if the audience walks away and wants to come back again – that is still the heart of the whole business.’