Classical Music Buzz > David Finckel and Wu Han Blog
David Finckel and Wu Han Blog
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Arriving from opposite sides of the world, David and Wu Han met in Seoul on December 5th to perform in and preside over the second season of Chamber Music Today, the annual three-day festival they inaugurated last year in collaboration with the Korean company Casual Classic. During the same visit, David interviewed the finalists of the first Mendelssohn Fellowship and announced the recipient of the Fellowship.


In David’s words

Arriving from a chilly Moscow December, one would expect warmer weather in Korea, but not so on December 5th in Seoul. The temperature was approaching single digits, but the clear air and the cheerful atmosphere of Seoul’s Insadong district was a delightful change in environment.

Our mission in Korea last week saw us in at least four roles: as performers, as Artistic Directors of Chamber Music Today and of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (whose artists performed on two of the concerts), and for me, as Artistic Director of the Mendelssohn Fellowship.

Chamber Music Today, inaugurated exactly one year ago, is a three-day festival that brings chamber ensembles and individual performers of international renown to Seoul. The festival consists of four concerts, including one special donor’s concert that kicks off the festival on Saturday night.

After a rehearsal with David Shifrin in a very small studio near the hotel, we showed him around what has become a very familiar neighborhood, filled with shops, restaurants and stands selling alluring street food.

During the day, our CMS musicians spent time teaching the many wonderful students of the LG Chamber Music School, our other major project in Korea.  They came back with glowing reports of the level of talent and dedication, which we have seen develop steadily over the five years we have collaborated with the program. It was shocking to hear, however, that the school we have taught in (usually in hot weather) lacked heat, and that these very special young players are learning under extremely adverse conditions. There are always things we can do better for our musicians of the future, and we pledge to work at it.

The evening brought our first event, the donor’s concert, held this year in Seoul’s Hyatt Hotel, which is positioned on a hill overlooking the city.  The festival is organized and administered by the Casual Classic arts company and its dedicated staff, presided over by director Jeehyun Kim, an irresistible, force-of-nature woman who is passionately dedicated to promoting classical music. Without her extraordinary vision, none of us would have been there.

Wu Han welcomed the small crowd comprised of distinguished guests, many from sponsoring corporations.

With an introduction from Wu Han, the St. Lawrence String Quartet took the stage perform a Haydn quartet.  Geoff Nuttall delivered verbal program notes in his own inimitable and engaging style.

Following the Haydn, Wu Han and I ran through the Brahms e minor sonata to conclude the program, and we moved to the dining area for an elegant Chinese meal.  Near the end, it was time for me to announce the winner of the first Mendelssohn Fellowship. Representatives from the three finalist groups stood by me, tensely, while I kept them waiting for the results, explaining to the crowd the story and mission of the Fellowship (see my blog from June at the time of the Fellowhip’s announcement).

After extensively interviewing all the finalists the day before, assisted by several of my Advisory Committee members, we came to the conclusion that all three were deserving of the prize, and it was a great joy – and relief to all the applicants – that I was able to congratulate them all in front of the enthusiastic crowd.

Left to right, Jeehyun Kim, Wu Han, cellist Yumi Nam, Animas Trio pianist Younkyung Kim, David Finckel, Classikan Ensemble violist Shinkyu Lee, and Animas Trio cellist Sae Rom Kwon

During the event, day had changed to night, and we were treated to a transformed view of Seoul before leaving. Cellist Chris Costanza made friends with the curious looking sculpture in the lobby.

Sunday brought a busy schedule with two concerts. Around lunch time, David Shifrin, Wu Han and I rode to the Seoul Arts Center to the hall where I first played in Korea with the Emerson Quartet many years ago.  This marvelous hall was also home to the festival last year during our first season.

Backstage, Casual Classic pampered us, as usual, with delicious and beautiful snacks.

Our trio concert with David Shifrin consisted of the repertoire on our recent ArtistLed release: Beethoven’s Trio Op.  11, Four Pieces by Max Bruch, and the magnificent late trio by Johannes Brahms. After the concert we hurried out to the lobby, where we experienced one of the most heartening moments in our tours to Korea: meeting the audience.

There are more young people going to our concerts in Korea than I have seen anywhere in the world, in any concert I have performed or attended.  There were probably as many, if not more, listeners under the age of twenty than above, so many that it prompted David Shifrin to joke that Korea seems to have a problem with a declining OLDER audience.  From the demographics of all three audiences at this festival, one could make that a serious argument.

In a short time, it was the St. Lawrence Quartet’s turn to take the stage.

In a few moments, the quartet launched into a galloping first movement of  Beethoven’s Quartet Op. 18 No.  6,  led by violinist Scott St. John. Scott also led the fascinating second work on the program by Osvaldo Golijov, Chamber Music Today’s first performance of a work by a living composer.

After intermission, Geoff Nuttall took the first violin chair for a high-octane performance from start to finish of Mendelssohn’s spectacular quartet, Op. 44 No. 2 in e minor.

The lobby scene after was just as wild and just as young. The St. Lawrence Quartet was ecstatic, and they signed countless autographs for the young listeners.

A delicious dinner of pork barbecue ended late with a photo of some happy and well-fed musicians.

Although Wu Han and I were done with performing by Monday, we had a very busy day, beginning with a long strategy meeting with the winners of the Mendelssohn Fellowship. Our purpose was to identify the young musicians’ strong points and to help them by guiding their projects forward.  Wu Han joined me in talking with the young musicians, and we shared with them a lot of conventional wisdom gleaned from our years of entrepreneurial work. Stay tuned for a next chapter on the exciting work of the new Mendelssohn Fellows.

With cellist Yumi Nam

  The third and final concert of this year’s Chamber Music Today festival was presented entirely by a stellar group of artists of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. It was CMS’s Korean debut.

Traveling all the way to Korea for this single appearance were violinists Kristin Lee and Erin Keefe, violist Paul Neubauer, cellist Nicholas Canellakis, and pianist Gilbert Kalish. David Shifrin joined them and was the only artist of the Society to appear in two concerts, besides us.

This performance took place in the more intimate Sejong Hall, near to our hotel and the historic palace.

The performance began with Dohnanyi’s fantastic Serenade for string trio, performed spectacularly by Kristin Lee,  Paul Neubauer, and Nicholas Canellakis. For Kristin, a native Korean, it was a special moment for her to play there with CMS for the first time, especially with the musicians who have now become her regular colleagues and friends. Her parents and many family members and friends attended, and throughout our visit, she proved the perfect hostess, tour guide and companion.

The string trio was followed by David Shifrin and Gil Kalish in a performance of Debussy’s Premiere Rhapsody, a showpiece for clarinet which we have heard David perform on numerous occasions. David’s unequalled capacity for variety of color and nuance makes his performance of this work, for us, definitive, and the audience’s vocal response was indeed appropriate. Our listeners here, though young, seem to know what’s good, and they certainly got a lot of it in during the evening.

Erin Keefe then joined these two musicians for a bracing and uncannily accurate performance of Bartok’s Contrasts for clarinet, violin and piano.

After intermission, a performance of the Brahms piano quintet concluded the program.  In the opinion of many, Gil Kalish is one of the great Brahms interpreters of our time, bringing to the table his unbelievably rich tone, solid musical reasoning, crystal-clear articulation, natural phrasing, and an enormously powerful sound. Playing Brahms with him – and I’m lucky to have had many opportunities – is a chamber musician’s dream, one that certainly came true for his collaborators in this performance.

After being rewarded with numerous curtain calls, the ensemble quickly made its way to the lobby to greet Chamber Music Today’s signature audience. One of our musicians commented that it felt like a grown up concert with a children’s concert audience, and he could  not have been more correct.

The temperature outside (and also in the lobby – none of the Korean lobbies seem to be heated) had dropped to the lowest mark of our visit so far, yet we braved the elements for a very brisk walk to a restaurant only a block away, for a meal organized and hosted by LG executive Sunghyun Kim. Sunghyun is, without a doubt, the most musically literate CFO we know, and he astounded our performers during dinner with the combination of his relaxed personality and enormous knowledge of our art form, not to mention, entertaining us with a true insider’s perspective of one of the world’s largest and most successful media companies.

Sunghyun Kim, left

True to tradition, everyone had early flights the next morning, but that stopped not one of us from enjoying absolutely mouth-watering barbecue, with all the Korean trimmings, and an astonishing amount of Shoju.

The evening ended with a photograph that included the whole cast, including Sunghyun Kim and his fellow LG executive Jun Yung (center), Jeehyun Kim and her staff, and of course, all of the musicians. Somehow the night didn’t feel so cold anymore, and I believe I speak for all of us when I  say that we left Korea inspired by the audiences, warmed by the friendship, and eager to return to continue playing and teaching chamber music in this extraordinary society.

5 years ago |
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In little more than 24 hours, the Emerson Quartet blasted in and out of Moscow to perform at the December Nights Festival for the first time. Despite the exhausting travel schedule, David took every opportunity he could to fully experience this amazing city.


In David’s words

Not many soloists or ensembles from America plan and execute run-outs to Russia. The fact that Moscow sits on the east side of the vast country does little to make it seem any closer.  Having flown into Boston Sunday morning, rehearsed, and played a concert for the Celebrity Series, the quartet shared a few hurried minutes with the series’ donors, well-wishers, and autograph seekers.  The Celebrity Series, always the efficient and thoughtful host, had a car waiting to rush the quartet to Boston’s Logan Airport for a 7:45 p.m. Air France flight to Paris.

My formula of avoiding alcohol or coffee, plus a sleeping pill, worked like a charm, and I slept the whole way over. At Charles de Gaulle, there was another mad dash for the connecting flight to Moscow. During the long flight, the new-found daylight faded to dusk and eventually the sky turned dark as we had changed time zones into Monday evening (Russia has nine time zones).  And the days are short during the Moscow winter.

Getting through customs at the airport is a crazy prospect for anyone carrying an instrument.  The officials, wanting to make sure you don’t take any instruments out of Russia that aren’t yours, insist on a long, drawn-out procedure that requires musicians to arrive with sets of detailed photos of instruments and bows, plus papers stating ownership and value.   There have been recent stories of musicians not having had the proper paperwork and going through nightmares, so we were all well prepared.  I am thankful every day that I have a crackerjack staff who takes care of most of the work for me; I don’t know how other musicians manage to find the time. Maria, our charming host from the festival, was waiting for us at customs, ready to explain everything we needed to know. Without her, one torturous hour could have easily turned into three.

After the very slow process of customs agents examining our instruments, copying passports, stamping documents, etc., we emerged into the cold Moscow night, cramming ourselves into a van. We were warned of traffic going into Moscow (at 7:30 p.m.) and sure enough, we sat on the highways for nearly two hours on a trip that should only take 30 minutes.

Arrival at the elegant Marriott Tverskaya was a relief.  I was quickly in touch with my good friend Igor Naidin, violist of the Borodin Quartet, and within 40 minutes he arrived at the hotel, ready to take us out to dinner. We enjoyed a brisk walk to the famous Pushkin Café, a reconstructed, historically-informed environment that harks back to the days of the founder of modern Russian literature.

Alexander Pushkin lived roughly during the time of Beethoven, and was the first to introduce international concepts into Russian literature, excelling in every genre he tackled.  Such was the magnetism of his work that it became the inspiration for composers such as Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Rachmaninov and Stravinsky.  The stories of the famous operas we know – Eugene Onegin, Boris Godunov, the Queen of Spades – all came from Pushkin’s pen.  He died tragically in a duel at the age of 37.

Monument of Pushkin in Pushkin Place

Igor Naidin is both the youngest and longest-tenured member of his quartet.  The Borodin Quartet, famous and beloved by audiences the world over for its definitive performances and recordings of a wide range of literature, has had many personnel changes since it was founded in 1945 at the Moscow Conservatory. The original cellist was none other than Rostropovich, who soon left to pursue, understandably, his unparalleled career as a soloist. His replacement, Valentin Berlinsky, was a fantastic cellist, one of the best in a quartet ever. His tone, technique and musicianship helped guide the group throughout its history until he passed away in 2008. (Several years ago, I became the proud owner of Berlinsky’s bow, which he used for concerts for duration of his career).

Having a tireless, generous and fun-loving local as a guide in a foreign city like Moscow is an indispensable asset if you want to make the most out of a short stay.  After dinner, we headed back to the hotel where we took Igor up on his offer to drive us around Moscow during the late-night, low-traffic hours. The sights were so extraordinary that I hardly noticed the bitter cold.

Our first stop was the street monument in memory of Rostropovich.  The stunningly realistic sculpture was unveiled in 2012, five years after the great musician’s passing. What a triumph for Slava and his family to be so embraced by the government which once persecuted them and stripped them of their citizenship. Slava is positioned facing the building in which he and Shostakovich owned apartments, with the Conservatory where he learned and taught only couple of blocks behind him, and a beautiful old church to his left.

Although Slava is hunched over his cello in a way that I never saw, the perspective from the street is a familiar one that so many people experienced while sitting below him at a concert, staring up his unbelievably intense face and long fingers running over the strings like a giant spider.  The statue certainly brings back memories, and captures Slava the way so many hundreds of thousands remember him.

It was a very short hop from Slava’s memorial to that of another great Russian musician, Tchaikovsky, who is imposingly positioned directly in front of the Moscow Conservatory.

From there we headed directly to the Kremlin, passing the magnificent Bolshoi Opera House on the way.

One of the great tourist sites of the world, the Kremlin looks even more spectacular at night, and perhaps more friendly as well. We returned to the hotel exhausted but dazzled and inspired.

Up early the next morning, I squeezed in several hours of practicing before being met by Maria and our faithful driver Maxim, who had volunteered to take us to the Novodevechy cemetery, one of, if not the most legendary cemetery in the world. Literally all of Russia’s cultural heroes lie there, including the recent arrival Rostropovich.  I simply had to go, but unfortunately, my colleagues in the quartet were either too tired or busy to go (some of them had seen it on our last visit here, seven years ago). On the way we encountered stunning sights like this one-of-many Stalinist-style buildings (now a Radisson Hotel) and the Russian White House.

But the sight of the beautiful Novodevechy Convent (once a 13th century fortress) heightened anticipation of a profound experience.

There was a gentle snow falling, the light was on the dim side, and upon entering the cemetery one is captivated by its magic.

With headstones chiefly black in color, it is somber without being depressing.  Most of the tall stones have sculpted heads on them, so the place feels full of personalities. The capping of snow made many of them look like cone-heads, for those of you who remember these characters from Saturday Night Live.

Slava being Slava, unstoppable and refusing any answer but yes when he wanted something, somehow posthumously secured for himself the absolute prime site in the cemetery for his grave, right on the corner, halfway down the main pathway.  You can see his headstone from the street.  They must have moved someone out of there for him.

It is still shocking for me to see his dates written. They delineate the earthly life of a man who all of us expected, somehow, to be around forever. Thankfully, Slava’s great legacy is one of the most well-documented in musical history, and I need only to put on his early recording of the Saint-Saens Concerto to recall the excitement and inspiration I felt when I first heard it at ten years old.

Next, we went to see the grave of Shostakovich, and it makes one realize how much changed in Russia between 1974 and 2007.  Off to the side, in another area walled off from the main part, Shostakovich’s plain stone block sits on a narrow path that had not even been shoveled.  It is, however, completely in character with the composer: simple, not wanting to call attention to itself, modest and withdrawn.

The cemetery map, even after one wipes the snow off, is almost impossible to read, and then proves inaccurate once you do find your destination.  We had to ask the snow-shovelers where the grave of Shostakovich was.  There are no markers directing you to famous people.

After paying my respects to the composer whose music I’ve played perhaps more than any composer save Beethoven, we circled around to find the grave of the violinist David Oistrakh, a colleague of Rostropovich with whom he performed often.  One of the great violinists of all time, his legendary recordings still set the standard for beauty of sound, for the most heartfelt renderings of the major classics such as the Brahms Concerto, and for the great works he premiered by Shostakovich.  His grave, although not well marked, is relatively hard to miss, as a sculpture of him playing is positioned atop the stone.

On our way out I happened upon a gravestone with music on it, and instantly recognized the beautiful first phrase of Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations.  The grave, I learned, belonged to the great Russian cellist Sviatoslav Knushevitsky, who performed in a piano trio with David Oistrakh and pianist Lev Oborin.

I dashed to the hotel just in time to gather things for the rehearsal and concert. Cramming into the van again, we drove a short distance to our venue, the Pushkin Museum.

The Pushkin Museum is one of Moscow’s great art museums; it has nothing to do with Pushkin save the name, which was given to it in 1937 on the hundredth anniversary of the writer’s death.  The grand building houses a stunning collection, including the only painting that Vincent van Gogh ever sold, and the famous trove of gold looted from Troy by the German archeologist Heinrich Schliemann. The museum has been the home of the December Nights Festival since the festival’s founding in 1981.

The concerts take place in a large, high-ceilinged rectangular room with a stone floor and booming acoustics.

The pre-concert preparations included all kinds of challenges (no music stands, no cello platform, a wandering recording engineer setting up microphones hovering precariously over us, etc.)

But we were rewarded at the end of the rehearsal with a dressing area in one of the sculpture galleries, with food graciously laid out and many people to tend to our needs.  It was truly a unique backstage scene. The bathroom is two long flights down.

Larry consulted Igor about note discrepancies in the viola part of Shostakovich Quartet No. 12. Igor told us that his quartet – the leading authority on the works – has discovered many inconsistencies and questionable notes in the cycle.

The concert went off without a hitch and the public was very appreciative; the Shostakovich Quartet carried an understandably special intensity. (I will describe in detail, experiences of playing under heightened, extraordinary circumstances, in a forthcoming Huffington Post blog, sometime after May.)

At the conclusion of the concert, the audience and musicians all race to get through the same door which is about 10 feet wide.  It was quite a challenge.

Igor was backstage ready to whisk us off to dinner, but not before we met two distinguished ladies: Irina Shostakovich, the third and final spouse of the composer, and Natalya Solzhenitsyn, widow of the great dissident writer whom Rostropovich housed in his dacha during the writer’s banishment from Moscow.

Irina Shostakovich, right

Dinner was at the Tchaikovsky Restaurant near the hotel, a musician hangout, where we all had lots of good food and vodka. As we ate, violist Yuri Bashmet, the director of the December Nights Festival, passed by after his dinner, saying a nice hello without apology for having missed our concert.

I’m not sure when or if I will return to Russia in the future.  But on this visit I accomplished some important missions and had a very wonderful time.  A future trip, if it happens, will be for much longer duration, and will provide many mre opportunities for playing, teaching and learning.

5 years ago |
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St Cecilia's Exterior

After two years of intensive planning, the St. Cecilia Music Center of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center launched a three-year partnership with a concert by Wu Han, Philip Setzer, and David Finckel. The performance took place before a wildly enthusiastic crowd in the stunning hall at the Music Center.


In David’s words

One of America’s great classical music stories began in the year 1883, when a group of women in Grand Rapids decided to begin a musical organization named the St. Cecilia Society, after the patron saint of music. The organization’s mission was to “promote the study and appreciation of music in all its branches” and that vision is still at work today.  Initially performing for each other in their homes, the women eventually raised the funds to build the magnificent building which is now St. Cecilia’s own, and they began importing internationally renowned musicians to perform. Today, St. Cecilia offers music education and activities for musicians of all ages and abilities, as well as performances by distinguished artists.

The idea of a relationship with St. Cecilia entered my thinking when I first played there about ten years ago with the Emerson Quartet. Returning with a duo recital a couple of seasons later added fuel to the idea, especially when Wu Han laid eyes on the extraordinary hall, and after both of us had learned the Center’s inspiring history.  Under the dynamic leadership of Executive Director Cathy Holbrook, the Center is thriving and expanding its vision, and CMS was there at the right moment to offer the center a seasonal selection of some of our most exciting programs from the New York stage.


Left to Right: Cathy Holbrook, Executive Director; David Finckel and Wu Han, Artistic Directors; Chuck and Stella Royce, the namesake of the Royce Auditorium at St. Cecilia Music Center.

A lively donor reception and dinner the evening before our concert allowed us to thank and acknowledge the contributions of all, to explain the project, and to get to know the Center’s most important supporters.  As is so often the fact, this group of patrons comprises a collection of smart, passionate and dedicated people who are determined to ensure that the institution is secure and will allow our partnership to thrive.  We were very impressed with all of them and look forward to building these new friendships over the residency’s three-year period.

As Philip, Wu Han and I are playing our Dvorak Trio program in Alice Tully Hall in January (as well as a substantial number of other places this season) we decided to kick the series off with this romantic program, which includes the last two great trios of Dvorak, the f minor and the “Dumky”.  As an opener, Wu Han and I offered Brahms’ first sonata in e minor, which connects the many dots between Brahms and Dvorak that resulted in a great friendship and whole-hearted support of the young Czech composer by the Viennese master.


The explosive vocal greeting we received entering the stage after Cathy spoke (we can’t imagine what she must have said!) led the way to a thoroughly satisfying experience on the stage of this fantastic hall.  Seating about 500, it is the perfect size and acoustic for chamber music, and we know that all our musicians from CMS will come home with rave reviews about the concert hall, the public, and the organization and its people. We look forward to the next opportunity we will have to play there –I hope it’s soon– but I am equally excited to be sending so many stellar players from the CMS roster to share in this joyful and exciting project.

Check on the Center’s many activities at

5 years ago |
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Squeezing in a two-night stop between the CMS cruise and the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern Festival, the duo found its way to Sarajevo to perform for an exciting and original chamber music festival, inaugurated just last year. It was something of a family gathering: read on.


In David’s words
Jumping hurriedly off the Corinthian II in Barcelona in the early morning, and racing past the tantalizing cityscape, we headed straight for the airport for the first of the day’s three flights that would land us, well after dark, in Sarajevo’s Butimir Airport.  For our first visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina, we were very excited to be among the performers of the second Sarajevo Chamber Music Festival, organized by the Manhattan String Quartet, in which my cousin Chris is the cellist.

The festival was born in the previous year as a common inspiration of my cousin and Sarajevo musician Dino Mulic, a tireless, passionate advocate of the arts dedicated to bringing the best to his home city.

Dino, between me and Wu Han

Sarajevo’s rich history of course includes the assassination of Archduke of Austria in 1914 which sparked World War I, and the horrendous siege during the Bosnian war for independence, 1992-96, in which the city was relentlessly bombarded from the surrounding hills.

With food supplies cut off and utilities scarce, the city held its own until United Nations forces finally defeated the aggressors in 1996, ending the war.  But the city had lost thousands of its citizens, its historic buildings were either completely destroyed or pock-marked by snipers’ bullets, and a generation of young people who had been shot at while traveling to school (like Dino) set about to rebuild their lives and their city.

Indeed, Sarajevo thrives today and offers visitors a vibrant historic center filled with shops, restaurants, and historic sights.

After the siege, many musicians visited Sarajevo to bring the joy of music into the lives of its war-ravaged citizens. But rarely have they returned on a regular basis, and Dino described his dream to Chris at the festival’s conception: that the concerts should be free to the public, and that somehow, the festival must find a way to survive and to continue for many seasons.

It is obvious that although many years have passed since the war, the city is still in need of sustenance. The Manhattan Quartet began the festival last year by performing the complete cycle of fifteen Shostakovich Quartets, a body of music in which the composer revealed not only his innermost self but which chronicles his turbulent and challenged life as an artist in the Soviet Union.  Undoubtedly, this music had special resonance with listeners in Sarajevo, and the first festival was a stunning example of imaginative and visionary programming.

Narrowly missing the opening concert, we caught the open-air reception behind the concert hall, attended by many from the audience, including local dignitaries.  The place was buzzing with the kind of enthusiasm that we were to experience non-stop over the next forty-eight hours.

Our contributions to this festival, due to our very tight schedule, had to be squeezed into a single day, beginning the next morning with a master class at the Sarajevo Academy of Music.  The building has all the qualities of a quintessential European 19th century conservatory building: spacious rooms and hallways, a sense of history, and a well-worn feel that is further accentuated by still-obvious damage from war.  The top two floors are the college division, first floors elementary division, middle is high school.

The students, part of the festival’s chamber music workshop who come from nearby towns, were both talented and eager.  We spent the better part of the morning working with three gifted ensembles. A total of fourteen chamber groups performed in the Institute’s final concert, which concluded with the Dvorak Serenade for Strings, conducted by Deborah Wong.

Wu Han stayed on to practice, framed here by the rocket-blasted hole in the wall which has been preserved as a reminder of the city’s trials.

The afternoon brought our dress rehearsal in the stunning concert hall, known as the Dom Armije, which is located in a building owned by the army and used chiefly for army events.  The remarkable hall has hosted concerts for many years by artists the likes of Heifetz.

With the Manhattan Quartet, Wu Han rehearsed the Dvorak Quintet and I the Arensky Quartet; the program began with a performance by the duo of Beethoven’s sonata in A major.  That evening, the hall was literally packed with some of the most excited listeners of all generations that we’ve ever encountered.

The post-concert arrangement included an alfresco dinner with the quartet at a family-run restaurant on the side of the hill high above the city. The views, the food, the atmosphere, and the company were all delightful and unforgettable.

With Chris Finckel and spouse Deborah Wong

Although we left hurriedly the next morning, the festival continued on at a fast pace, offering  performances of Schubert’s Winterreise in an all-Schubert concert, an all-Mozart concert with Slovenian clarinetist Boris Rener, a recital by pianist Christopher Taylor, plus other masterpieces of the literature.  In future seasons, we hope to once again take part in this inspiring project, and we thank the Manhattan Quartet and the festival’s organizers for their invitation, their hospitality and friendship.

5 years ago |
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At a press conference at Seoul’s beautiful Namsan Hyatt Hotel, Jeehyun Kim, Executive Director of the Chamber Music Today festival, announced the inauguration of the Mendelssohn Fellowship.  The program, which identifies and awards a young Korean musician a two-year budget to promote chamber music in Korea, is artistic directed by David Finckel and assisted by an international advisory committee.

The official language describing the program, taken from the Mendelssohn Fellowship announcement flier, is excerpted here:

The Mendelssohn Fellowship will support the efforts of a highly accomplished and motivated young Korean musician to further the art of chamber music in Korea over a two-year period. The Fellowship provides an artistic budget of $20,000, and is open to performers between the ages of 18 and 33 who are committed to professional careers in music. Projects and uses of the Fellowship funds might include: Presenting of chamber music performances; educational programs and outreach events; fees for collaborating musicians, educators; media initiatives, such as web sites,
live streaming or distance teaching; music industry and/or education conferences; consultation expenses; and promotional costs.

The Fellowship is named after the 19th-century composer Felix Mendelssohn, who greatly expanded the understanding and appreciation of music in his day. 

The Fellowship’s advisory committee:
Dmitri Atapine  Professor of Cello, University of Nevada, Music@Menlo; Artistic Director, Argenta Concerts
Gloria Chien  Professor of Piano, Lee University, Artistic Director, String Theory at the Hunter
Paul Chung  Vice President, LG Corporation
Tong Soo Chung  Senior Foreign Counsel, Yulchon LLC
Lawrence Dutton  Violist, Emerson String Quartet; Professor, Viola and Chamber Music, Stony Brook University,
The Manhattan School of Music, Mercer University

Ruth Eliel  Executive Director, the Colburn Foundation, Los Angeles
Soovin Kim  Professor of Violin, Stony Brook University
Sunghyun Kim  CFO, LGU+
Sangjin Kim  Violist, MIK Ensemble; Professor of Viola, Yonsei University
Kristin Lee  Violinist, The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center
Sean Lee  Violinist, The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center
The Jupiter String Quartet  Ensemble in Residence, New England Conservatory
Adela H. Park  Pianist, Korean National University of Arts; Yale University, Peabody Conservatory
Michael Parloff  Principal flutist, the Metropolitan Opera; Artistic Director, Parlance Chamber Concerts
Steven Tenenbom  Violist, Orion String Quartet; Professor, Viola and Chamber Music, The Juilliard School, Curtis Institute

Attending the event were some 30 people: prospective candidates, Korean music teachers, and members of the press, including correspondents from the Chosun Daily, the Tongah Daily, and the Maekyung Economic Daily.

David, assisted by Jeehyun Kim, spoke for 20 minutes about his own introduction to chamber music as a young student, and described the challenges facing young chamber music players and the classical music industry in general.  The Mendelssohn Fellowship is designed to address these challenges and to take advantage of the growing enthusiasm for chamber music in Korea.

Prior to the press conference, David and Wu Han interviewed privately with the distinguished author and arts correspondent Sunghyun Kim.

The event was also attended by two distinguished members of the advisory committee: T. S. Chung of the Yulchon law firm, and Sunghyun Kim, CFO of the LG U+ corporation.

The winner of the first award will be announced at the final concert of the second Chamber Music Today festival, on December 10th, 2012, in Seoul.

Providing enormous additional excitement to the duo’s two-day visit to Korea was the wedding of cellist Dmitri Atapine to pianist Hyeyeon Park, Music@Menlo International Performers Program alumni and now on the faculty of the Chamber Music Institute.

5 years ago |
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Departing Venice bathed in the warm evening light, the Corinthian II – the 114-passenger ship that has hosted both prior CMS cruises – set sail for a ten-day itinerary of stops at historic sites, gourmet meals on board and off, and four concerts by CMS musicians David Finckel and Wu Han, violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky, and violist Paul Neubauer.


In David’s words

After such a quick exit from the wonderful world of Music@Menlo, and a hurried stop in New York for an Emerson Quartet concert at the Mostly Mozart Festival (my last Mostly Mozart performance with the quartet), it was a relief to finally board a flight on Tuesday afternoon. We eventually arrived in Venice’s Marco Polo Airport, where, in my quest for the first cappuccino of the tour, I met up violist Paul Neubauer and his family: his wife, violinist Kerry McDermott, and their extraordinary children Clara and Oliver, all of whom accompanied us on the cruise.

A meeting at Venice’s centrally located Monaco Hotel, located on the Grand Canal, passengers were given a chance to greet each other for the first time.  It was in the hotel’s elegant upstairs ballroom that we first encountered violinist Alexander (“Sasha”) Sitkovetsky, and his talented and charming wife, pianist Qian Wu, who would also accompany us on the voyage. (Qian and Sasha, much like me and Wu Han, are a professional duo, and have started a very successful piano trio!).

After a quick lunch in Venice, we all headed towards the nearby parked ship, and on the Corinthian II’s stern, everyone relaxed, said hello, and readied for the sail out of Venice onto the Adriatic.

We said hello to our many friends, including Edwin Williamson and his wife Kathe, who is a recent and welcome addition to the CMS board.

We also had the pleasure of introducing Music@Menlo long-time volunteer Alice Wong to our many CMS friends and fellow musicians.

Thursday, 16th – Ortona

Waking up to a new harbor is one of the most magical, recurring events on these cruises.   The picturesque harbor of Ortona, a small town halfway down the Italian peninsula, on the Adriatic side, was our first stop.
Ortona was our point of departure for the small village of Atri, the location of our first concert, which took place in the exquisite Teatro Communale.

The program, performed exclusively for our voyage companions, consisted of a Mozart Duo for violin and viola, and the Mozart Piano Quartet in Eb.   After the concert we walked to the nearby Palazzo Ducale for a buffet lunch, complete with entertainment by a costumed renaissance band.

Friday 17th – Vis Island

Another morning brought another magical arrival, as we docked just off the shore of the tiny Croatian island of Vis. The island is quite unspoiled due to the fact that it was a military base for the former army of Yugoslavia, Marshal Tito’s hide out, and was not opened for tourism until 1989.  It is the farthest from the coast of all the Croatian islands.  A standout of the vista is the hillside Church of Our Lady of the Pirates.

Heavy repertoire loads for the cruise and our coming residency at the Mecklenburg Festival prevented me, and Wu Han, from joining many sight-seeing tours on this cruise, which unfortunately included the excursion on the island of Vis, although I did take the jetty to shore town of Komiža to briefly to grab some wifi, and the chance to post my most recent blogs.

The evening brought the Captain’s welcome dinner, for which everyone dressed up, including Sasha and Qian, and CMS board member Harry Kamen and his wife Barbara.

Howdy and Mary Phipps on the main deck.

Saturday 18th – Monopoli

Monopoli is an Italian town that sits further down the coast towards the heel of the boot of Italy.  It is in the region of Bari, and close to a city we visited last year, the town of Taranto, from which we visited nearby Greek ruins.

Once again, I missed the sight-seeing activities, but Wu Han did get out to the town of Alberobello, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, famous for its beehive-shaped houses that could be dismantled in moments to evade heavy taxation.  Wu Han, however, had to forego the afternoon trip to the popular tourist destination of Ostuni, famous for its churches, monuments, and ancient history. There was way too much repertoire on our plates to be able to enjoy the same opportunities as our fellow passengers.

Sunday 19th – Crotone

The next morning we awoke in the port city of Crotone, the southern Italian city on the Ionian sea where the Greek mathematician founded his school in 530 B.C.

Foregoing the local sights, the musicians set out by special bus for the spectacular hill town of Santa Severine, the location of our second concert.  Known as the “Stone Ship”, the town sits atop a stone outcropping and overlooks the beautiful surrounding countryside.

The concert took place in the Baptistery of Santa Anastasia Cathedral, another truly unforgettable setting.  Wu Han and I performed Bruce Adolphe’s atmospheric and engaging “Couple”, the first work ever commissioned for us.

Dohnanyi’s Serenade for violin, viola and cello demands a high level of instrumental technique and extreme concentration from each player.  It was a special pleasure to rehearse and perform this piece with Paul Neubauer, who has undoubtedly played it hundreds of times, and with Sasha, who contributed extraordinary energy and flair.

After the concert, the piano was wrapped in plastic and taken away.   All the pianos we experienced on land where shipped in for our performances, and all miraculously showed up, complete with technicians.

Later that day, we rehearsed for our next performance in the ship’s concert space/lecture hall/meeting room.  Straight-backed chairs were not always easy to locate but CMS musicians are famous for their adaptability.

Monday, 20th  – Valletta, Malta

After a long overnight sail, we pulled into the famous harbor of Valletta, on the island of Malta, situated halfway between Sicily and Africa in the Mediterranean Sea.

It was our southernmost stop, and by far, the hottest.  It is indicated on our cruise map by the green arrow at the bottom.

Valletta, founded in 1566, is today a vibrant city, teeming with locals and tourists.  You can hear just about any language you can imagine being spoken on its streets.  To quote our tour guide: “Since early in the 1st millennium, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Sicilians, the Knights of St. John, the French and the British all had temporary powers that influenced the Maltese culture to varying degrees, yet through time, the population has managed to preserve a distinctive identity and a strong sense of community with the past.”

Napoleon Bonaparte played a part in Maltese history when he took the island in June of 1798, living in this house during his occupation of the city.

But by far the most incredible sight in the city is the Cathedral, built by the Knights of Malta in the 16th century.  It is one of the most lavishly decorated churches in the world, and is constantly packed with visitors.

The church is packed with sculptures and treasured paintings, among them, the famous Beheading of St. John the Baptist by Caravaggio.

It was an easy, but sweltering, walk from the center of Valletta back to the Corinthian II, harbored so conveniently below.

The departure from Valletta included a rehearsal aboard ship, followed by champagne on the rear deck with Kathe and Edwin Williamson.

Tuesday, 21 – Erice, Sicily

Our next stop was the Sicilian port of Trapani, which sits on Sicily’s western coast.  Trapani, founded to serve as the port city for the medieval hill town of Erice, was our point of departure for the visit to the historic town; our third concert location.  Buses awaited us a ship side to take us comfortably on the tour, although, in this case, the ride up the hill was a little more than many of us had bargained for.

Erice is situated at an altitude of 750 meters, overlooking Trapani.  It is quaint beyond words, a labyrinth of small streets with few cars, and stunning vistas everywhere.

Our concert was in the Chiese di San Martino of Erice.

The concert included a fantastic performance of Bohuslav Martinu’s Madrigals for violin and viola.  It is purely a coincidence that we performed Martinu in the church of Saint Martin, and also, that one of the church’s resident saints also appeared to take part in the performance.

The program also included Beethoven’s Piano Trio, Op. 1, No. 1.  Wu Han, always in full concert attire, introduced the work to our captive but eager audience.

Lunch was a short bus ride away, still on the hilltop, in a hotel whose dining room and swimming pool overlooked Trapani.

The lunch provided photographic opportunities

It was after lunch that we said goodbye to Travel Dynamic’s Italian tour manager, a gentleman passionate about music who followed us to all our Italian locations and enjoyed our concerts immensely.

The descent was a little less harrowing than the climb up, and afforded us spectacular views of the ocean and surrounding mountains.

During our evening departure (and after I had a great swim in the sea) we could easily see Erice situated high over the port of Trapani.

Wednesday, 22nd – Cagliari, Sardinia

A long sail finally put us into the harbor of Cagliari, on the southern tip of Sardinia, the second largest island in the Mediterranean Sea (after Sicily). Once again, musical obligations prevented me and Wu Han from visiting the historic sites of Barumini and Nora, but we heard much about them from our fellow passengers upon their return.  I had visited Cagliari once with the Emerson, and although I remembered it fondly, was not able to make it off the ship to relive the experience or show the fantastic city to Wu Han.  Next time, hopefully.

Thursday 23rd  - At Sea

The following day was spent on the open sea, a fantastic experience, especially when the sea is the Mediterranean and the weather is sunny and the winds are calm.  We spent most of the day practicing and rehearsing, and getting ready for our final concert that evening on board ship.

Guest Lecturer Anne-Marie Bouché delivered her final presentation “Past meets Present: The Recovery, Interpretation and Preservation of Archaeological Remains” in the lounge, after our rehearsal.

A highlight of the cruise for many, I’m sure, was the added performance by Oliver and Clara Neubauer as a Prelude Performance to ours. It consisted of violin duos expertly played and professionally presented, including verbal introductions to each work performed.  Wu Han welcomed them to the stage.

Clara and Oliver, 10 and 12 years old respectively, had spent the three weeks prior to the cruise at Music@Menlo as Young Performers, and seemed to truly thrive.  They brought all the dedication to their performance as could be expected of truly dedicated performers, and the packed house demanded an encore.  It was one of the most unforgettable moments of our journey. Even the Captain showed up to listen.

There was much joy aboard the Corinthian II after this concert.

The senior musicians finished up our concert series with two works: the Seven Popular Songs of Da Falla, arranged for violin and piano, and the enormous Piano Quartet in c minor by Gabriel Faure.

But perhaps stealing the show was Paul Neubauer’s performance of a set of Gypsy-inspired works, accompanied by me, Wu Han and Sasha. Long a specialty of Paul, who has studied Gypsy music and even sat in with authentic Gypsy bands, these performances included not only stellar playing but interactive elements which are best described by the following photos.

Following the concert, the group who had joined the cruise through the Chamber Music Society gathered for a group photo.

The Captain’s final reception and dinner provided everyone a chance to reminisce, exchange contact information, pose for photos, and to watch a beautiful slide show prepared by the tour staff.

For the final dinner, the kitchen pulled out all the stops, offering lobster tails and Baked Alaska. The musicians gathered to thank the ship’s pianist Eddie, whose beautiful playing graced the bar nightly.

Friday, 24th - Barcelona

There was no time to see anything of beautiful Barcelona as we hurriedly departed the ship at 8:30am for our flight.  Some lucky ones stayed on to see the city, even spending several days.  But for Wu Han and me, other obligations called, and we were soon aboard the first of three flights that day that would take us to see and perform in a place we had never been.  Stay tuned.

Many more cruises are in the planning stages right now; visit:

The Chamber Music Society website, or contact Sharon Griffin at CMS for more information:

– or –

The Music@Menlo website, or contact Annie Rohan for more information:

5 years ago |
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The final week of Music@Menlo’s 10th anniversary season began with a Café Conversation which opened the eyes and ears of the audience to the possibilities of music education through the internet. As a long passion and curiosity for me, I decided to share many of my favorite videos, recordings, and web sites – focusing especially on our students.  Dividing my talk into three segments – music lessons, master classes, and performance examples – the hour and 15 minutes flew by as we toured violinist Kurt Sassmannshaus’s, Paul Katz’s, and my own  We then moved to the site which offers numerous classes, and we watched Daniel Barenboim working with both Lang Lang and Alessio Bax on Beethoven.  Finishing up with performances, the room sat in an awed silence as we experienced the incomparable sound of David Oistrakh in Debussy’s Clair de Lune.

The week included a fantastic series of master classes, one after the other, led by Ani Kavafian, Gilbert Kalish, Ian Swensen, and finally Wu Han on Friday. She worked magically with two Young Performers’ piano duos on Mozart and Schubert with the hall packed full of listeners. Her ability to express herself powerfully, and to inspire, always enables young musicians to rise to higher levels and to produce new and more musical sounds, right in front of the audience.  And she does it all so naturally, and with such love – sometimes tough love – that it draws everyone together onto the same page- like very few artists I’ve ever seen.

Wednesday brought the season’s final Encounter, led by festival Artistic Administrator, Patrick Castillo. Focusing on the diversity of musical experiences today, and on today’s uses of music and listening habits, Patrick courageously put forth strong theories concerning the role of music in contemporary society, challenging his listeners with experimental and provocative musical examples.  Declaring rightly that “Music today is inescapably everywhere” ,  Patrick reasoned that music is an important means of engaging with the world of our time, and his selections – from Steve Reich to Mario Davidovsky – justified his arguments.  A riveting performance by Gloria Chien of Davidovsky’s Synchronism for piano and prepared tape perhaps elicited a pivotal moment in the evening, in which an audience member suddenly spoke out saying “That’s not music!” The tension was high for a few moments while Patrick deftly navigated away from a protracted argument, but as Patrick said in his opening remarks, there are more questions than answers about music today, and it is precisely the questioning that is the most important process.

On Thursday, the pressure shifted towards me and Wu Han as we presented our Carte Blanche recital program.   There is nothing quite like playing in front of your students: you tell them what to do and what not to do for 3 weeks, and then it is time for you to live up to the same expectations you have set for them.  We played a program in which each work represented one of the main festival program themes: Our opening Strauss Sonata was Delighted, the Messiaen “Praise to the Eternity of Jesus” was Inspired; Wu Han’s Spanish dances by Albeniz was Motivated; Glazunov’s “Minstrel’s Song” was Transported, and finally, Chopin’s Cello Sonata was Impassioned.  We made it through somehow, and people seemed to enjoy it, which is the most we could ask for in the middle of our heavy festival schedule.

After the Friday night concert in Stent Hall at Menlo School, a large crowd consisting of artists and staff trekked through the back gate of Menlo school, crossed the driveway, and went through the hole in the fence that leads to the house of long-time festival friend Jack Phillips.  It was the most poignant of parties, as, after hosting ten years of gatherings there, Jack has decided to sell the house.  But the good news is that it was purchased by Menlo School, and we are hoping with all our might that the new Head of School – who will live there – might enjoy a party once in a while.  (It was Jack Phillips who introduced us to Menlo School twelve years ago and helped us forge the relationship that began the festival.  We can never thank him enough!)

On Saturday at noon, the final Koret Young Performers Concert took place in the Center for Performing Arts at Menlo-Atherton.  These events have always been packed, even though we are now presenting them in our larger 500-seat hall. Unusual ensembles, including two octets (Spohr and Mendelssohn) bookended the concert, which showcased the incredible talents and preparation of the students in violin duos, piano duos, and even a selection of sublime cello quartets.  We could not be more proud of our students, and of our coaches, who all emerged for a well-deserved ovation from the audience of students, staff, parents, many senior artists and IP’s, the public, and of course me and Wu Han.

The summer’s closing concert, entitled Delighted, presented music which was designed to be enjoyed. No lofty messages came off the stage on Friday and Saturday, but plenty of great music and phenomenal playing nonetheless.  It’s possible that I have not heard a chamber music concert with quite so many notes, between Paul Schoenfield’s frenetic trio for clarinet, violin and piano, Mendelssohn’s Allegro Brillant for piano, four hands, Moszkowski’s virtuoso four-movement duo for two violins and piano, and the grand Chausson Concerto for violin, piano and string quartet. Ani Kavafian was the eloquent soloist in the Chausson, spinning out gorgeous lines while pianist Inon Barnatan, with the score mostly in his head but reading off an iPad nevertheless, dispatched the fearsome piano part with astounding command and musicianship.  In a concert that was riddled with highlights, among them were: the triumphant violin performances of Sean Lee and Kristin Lee in the Moszkowski; the wild and funny performance of the Schoenfield by Gloria Chien, Arnaud Sussmann and Jose Franch-Ballester; and the expert performance of the festival’s made-to-order string quartet for the Chausson, consisting of  Sean and Kristin Lee, Arnaud Sussmann on viola, and cellist Dmitri Atapine.

A grand closing party brought speeches, tributes and thanks to all our staff, musicians, donors, board members, and many audience members who attended the event.  In what seemed like a few moments, Music@Menlo’s 10th anniversary season had ended as quickly as it began, and everyone scattered: musicians running off to other festivals, some on the evening’s red eye flights to the east coast; staff back into the offices on Sunday for debriefings and festival clean up; and Wu Han and I back to New York for two nights only.

Added Value Blog: A Great Moment

On Monday night in New York, the Emerson Quartet reconvened for a single concert at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall for a Mostly Mozart Festival concert.  It was a great surprise, and delight, for me to learn that my successor in the Emerson, cellist Paul Watkins, was in the audience with his wife Jennifer, and backstage we saw each other for the first time since he accepted the position of cellist in the quartet.  We gathered joyfully for what will be, I’m sure, the first of many group photos.

Post script:

Stay tuned to this blog for a major post from the next chapter of our amazing summer.

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In David’s words

The Festival’s third week began with two “dark nights”, with no evening concerts or events; however, the days were packed with rehearsing, coaching sessions, and our daily 11:45a.m. master classes and Café Conversations.  The annual ping-pong tournament reached fever pitch.

Wednesday brought the highly anticipated Motivated program, which brought together a  diverse collection of music that was created for, or inspires, dancing.  Bach’s Suite in b minor for flute and strings opened the program, led by Music@Menlo favorite, flutist Carol Wincenc. Wu Han made (according to her) her U.S. debut as a harpsichordist.

The program continued with music of Schubert, Debussy, Strauss, and Bartok, before a large cast took the stage to close with program with Aaron Copland’s all-time-greatest-hit, the ballet music for Appalachian Spring, written for the Martha Graham dance company.  Performed in its original version for thirteen instruments, without conductor, it is still truly a magical experience to hear and perform. Some of us – like myself and Carol Wincenc – actually played in orchestras led by Copland during our early free-lancing days.

After the Motivated program, what seemed like a huge number of artists departed. This is always a sad moment, as we wish all our artists could stay for the whole festival. We bid them farewell with great food and toasts at Menlo Park’s Café Too.

The next day, all of our Institute students, plus the lucky members of the public who attend our free master classes and Café Conversations, were treated to a fascinating lecture and masterful performance by cellist Laurence Lesser.  Having recorded all of the solo cello suites by Bach just last year, Larry is very absorbed with them. In this instance he enlightened us on the differences between two versions of the Suite No. 5 in c minor, as Bach also wrote the piece for the lute.  The lute’s ability to play chords – and therefore harmonies – more easily than the cello offers us a window on Bach’s harmonic design behind the notes, and Larry miraculously somehow manages to incorporate much of the lute chordal writing into his performance on cello.  It was one of those defining sessions that truly shapes Music@Menlo an extraordinary and unique learning environment.

After the International Performers presented a beautiful Prelude Performance of piano trios by Ravel and Beethoven, it was time for the Encounter that focused on the spiritual power of music.  Michael Parloff, who last summer stunned our audience with a masterful talk about Brahms and the Schumanns, returned to tackle the tricky, ephemeral subject. He did so with great depth, while simultaneously laying out a thorough background for the next evening’s performance of Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ.

Haydn composed his “wordless oratorio” in 1787 for Good Friday services in the Spanish town of Cadiz, which is located on the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula. Haydn did not journey there for the premiere, but described in detail his challenging assignment, which was to compose seven slow movements, each illuminating the meaning of each of the last seven utterances of Christ as he was dying on the cross.

For the service, the lavish interior of the church in Cadiz was draped in black, and a single light illuminated the musicians and the celebrant.  We attempted to replicate this setting in one of my personal favorite venues, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Palo Alto- a home to festival concerts since our first full season.

We succeeded to an astonishing degree, due not only to the dignified and spiritual atmosphere already present, but also to practical advantages, such as a marvelous and willing stage and tech crew, who figured out how to darken the space and position our special concert lights (the “Finckel” lights) directly above the musicians, creating a highly dramatic effect.

But the truly extraordinary part was the performance itself, by a “festival quartet” composed of extraordinary players, who, before last week, had never played in a quartet together.  Violinists Erin Keefe, Jorja Fleezanis, violist Richard O’Neill and cellist Laurence Lesser truly gave one of the finest quartet performances I have ever heard. On top of the challenge of learning the nine movements from scratch, I threw at them the Emerson Quartet’s transcription of the work which incorporates many elements from the orchestral score which are inexplicably missing from the later quartet version (I still don’t believe that Haydn himself made the quartet version).

Between the movments, Michael Parloff read brief excerpts from the various gospels which recounts the crucifixion of Jesus, and quote His last words.  It was profoundly moving.

Saturday brought another extraordinarily rich selection of events and opportunities for listeners, students and performers.

The early afternoon KYPC concert, at the Menlo Atherton Performing Arts Center, offered another round of amazing performances (and pre-performance speeches) from the festival’s youngest musicians.  It is an enormous credit to both the students and coaches, that in such a short amount of time these young players are able to take complete control of themselves and their music in a professionally-produced concert setting, in front of a highly attentive audience of almost five-hundred listeners.

The evening offered one of the festival’s most unusual Carte Blanche concerts ever: Violin Celebration featured four diverse sonatas for violin and piano, performed by a cast of eight musicians, making up four different duos.  Erin Keefe and Wu Han began with a sonata by Beethoven, and were followed by Jorja Fleezanis and Gilbert Kalish in Copland’s seldom performed sonata, a work composed in 1943 and soon taken up by some of the greatest violinists of the day.  Following the intermission, Ian Swensen took the stage, partnered by pianist Hyeyeon Park, for Janacek’s gripping sonata, and the concert concluded with a blazing performance of the exuberant Strauss Sonata by Arnaud Sussmann and Gloria Chien.  The concert was not only a triumph for the artists but also for the festival, which took something of a risk presenting a program so highly unconventional.  The final ovation went on and on, and our listeners are still talking about it.

On Sunday, Wu Han was again on stage in yet another role: the demanding Piano Quartet in g minor by Gabriel Faure. Partnered by violinist Arnaud Sussmann, violist Richard O’Neill, and cellist Dmitri Atapine, their performance capped off the Impassioned program: a collection of pieces were inspired by the deepest human emotions, and which elicit charged responses from listeners time after time.

Opening the program was the magical Märchenbilder of Schumann for viola and piano, beautifully performed by Gilbert Kalish and violist Richard O’Neill, who make his Music@Menlo debut in fine style. Before intermission, Gilbert Kalish, Arnaud Sussmann and I offered Dvorak’s extraordinary Piano Trio in f minor, one of his most heartfelt and popular works, and one of a pair of giant trios that he composed just before leaving for America.

After a marvelous party at the Knudsen residence – one of my favorite places here in California – we all went to bed rather late- eager to catch some sleep to prepare for the festival’s final week, which seems to have come, as it always does, far too soon.

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In David’s words

After a weekend packed with events, each one seemingly more momentous than the last, Monday’s dark night provided us all the chance to focus on the coming programs, to explore and experience more aspects of this multi-dimensional festival.

Wu Han and I largely immersed ourselves in the ongoing work of our Chamber Music Institute students, visiting classrooms for most of the day to either coach or to observe our faculty and artists at work.

The Institute this summer comprises forty students; twenty-nine Young Performers and eleven International Performers.  The International Performers, ages 18 to 28, perform hour long concerts before most of the festival’s ticketed events.  The intensity of this program results from its repertoire demands: the International Performers repeat each work once, sometimes on consecutive concerts, and in a matter of days will reappear on stage again with yet another piece.  The repertoire, which we select for them, includes some of the most demanding chamber music ever composed.  This season, for example, IP ensembles are tackling Bartok’s 2nd Quartet and the Ravel Trio, as well as works by Beethoven, Mozart, Dvorak, Brahms and Shostakovich.  The Young Performers, who hail heavily from the Bay Area but also include students from far-away places, perform three major concerts during the festival, which usually take place in the Concert Hall at Menlo-Atherton before packed houses.

Monday brought the first of this festival’s Listening Room sessions, a series devised and hosted by our Artistic Administrator Patrick Castillo.  Although Patrick has grown to become one of the industry’s most respected artistic administrators, at heart he is a composer with a keen and adventurous ear that is always exploring innovative ways of hearing both new and old music.  The Listening Room, held in Martin Family Hall, affords all comers the opportunity to experience a pure, communal sonic experience.  In this session, listeners were treated to recordings of Bach for guitar, choral music by Finzi, the Agnus Dei from the Stravinsky’s Mass, Ligeti etudes, and Bill Evans’s “’Round Midnight”, preceded by the brief introductions by Patrick.

Tuesday’s 11:45 a.m. event slot was filled with the festival’s annual Poetry Reading, hosted by Patrick Castillo, Assistant Artistic Administrator Isaac Thompson, and violinist Jorja Fleezanis. Begun by the late Michael Steinberg in the festival’s early years, it has become a beloved and unique tradition in which the audience – comprised of all the CMI students and a large following of the public – are invited to the stage to read poetry that the festival collects or poems of their choice.  Following the conviction – voiced initially by Michael and reprised eloquently by Patrick – that the experience of live poetry can greatly expand emotional and intellectual horizons, Music@Menlo proudly presents this event as one of the unique facets of its profile.  Often, some of the festival’s most inspiring moments occur, as perhaps a very young student, or maybe a shy one, will suddenly blossom during the delivery of a thoughtful, funny, or profoundly moving poem.

Tuesday evening, after another heavily-attended Prelude Performance, saw the Pacifica Quartet deliver the festival’s Illuminated concert.  The perfect program to illustrate the ways in which music can bring listeners into the worlds of composers, the concert featured three classic, autobiographical string quartets:  Beethoven’s Op. 135, his final completed work, Janacek’s quartet Intimate Letters, and Smetana’s quartet, From My Life.  Each work tells stories from the composers lives, some funny, some poignant, and some quite provocative.  Having never combined these works in my own quartet experience, I was more than pleased to hear from the Pacifica how much they enjoyed performing this program, and that it even appears in their concert offerings for the coming season.  Indeed, the audience came away having truly gotten to know three great personalities of classical music, through performances that were as emotional and committed as one can hear anywhere.

Even before lunch on Wednesday, our Institute students and public were treated to a fascinating Café Conversation between soprano Susanne Mentzer and visiting BBC Music Magazine Editor Oliver Condy.  Titled “The Art of the Voice”, the two discussed Suzanne’s evolution as a singer, and the relevance of the vocal arts to instrumental music.

Before the repeat of Concert Program II, our International Performers presented an extraordinary all-Shostakovich Prelude Performance consisting of his Cello Sonata and Eighth Quartet.

Thursday brought a Master Class from pianist-conductor Jeffrey Kahane, in which he worked with our Institute students on the Dohnanyi Piano Quintet and the Mendelssohn d minor Trio.  Jeffrey, always an amazing artistic and intellectual, shared his wisdom generously, bringing his vast musical experience to his teaching as well as his performing.  We will never have too much of him here at Music@Menlo.

The evening brought an unprecedented event to the festival: an Encounter in the large Menlo Atherton Concert Hall. The reason for the change from our usual Encounter venue, Martin Family Hall at Menlo School was the Encounter’s unique requirements: a large movie screen. And the person who needed it was our Encounter Leader, pianist-composer Stephen Prutsman.  Tackling the subject of how music affects visual drama, Stephen brought with him his own works composed to accompany two silent films: Charlie Chaplin’s One A.M., and Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. Joining Stephen at the piano on stage were clarinetist Jose Franch-Ballester (for the Chaplin film) and the Escher Quartet (for the Keaton).  In between the films, Stephen was interviewed on stage in front of the large crowd by Artistic Administrator Patrick Castillo, who coaxed out of Stephen his amazingly diverse musical background, which includes, in addition to the most rigorous classical training, improvising in bars and nightclubs (to put himself through school), composing in all styles, and performing in concert a wide range of repertoire.

The Keaton film, the longer of the two, is especially funny and has a complex plot, which kept the audience alternately rapt and in stitches.  Stephen’s incredibly imaginative score was performed with consummate style and virtuosity by the Escher Quartet, with Stephen at the piano, all of them staring at the screen and keeping in sync with the film.  It was quite something, certainly the first of its kind at this festival.

On Friday I had the opportunity – the first in at least several summers – to give a master class.  I heard a wonderful Young Performers ensemble play Beethoven’s Trio Op. 11, and a group of International Performers play Beethoven’s “Ghost” Trio.  Having Beethoven as the composer at hand provided me too much of an exciting opportunity and I wound up talking way too much. Hopefully the students learned something that will help their performance, but I’m not really sure.

After another great Prelude Performance, which this evening included the marvelous and seldom-heard Dohnanyi Piano Quintet in Eb, we presented Concert Program III, entitled Transported, featuring music that takes listeners to sometimes-distant places and cultures.  Barber’s Dover Beach was beautifully performed by baritone Kelly Markgraf and the Escher Quartet, after which Jorja Fleezanis and Jeffrey Kahane quickly took us from the English Channel all the way to China with Chen-Yi’s Romance of the Hsaio and Chi’n. Following this brief, mesmerizing piece came a performance of Sibelius’s String Quartet by the Escher Quartet, an extraordinary work that paints vivid pictures of the Finnish land and culture.  Filled with sonic effects that bring to mind images of snow, ice, Vikings, the feel of the wind’s icy bite, being rocked at sea in a storm, the work is indeed one of the most transporting pieces that I know, and a work upon which this entire program was conceived and built.  The Escher gave it the performance we expected and more: a display of quartet technique that was astonishing – even for a quartet veteran like me – coupled with intensity, daring, beauty of sound, and deep understanding of the work.  It was easily one of the best string quartet performances I have ever heard, of anything, and the audience – especially our Institute students who are immersed in chamber music challenges daily – rose to its feet in awe and appreciation.

Following the intermission, the stage was taken by Wu Han and Jeffrey Kahane for an absolutely entrancing piano-four-hand performance of Debussy’s Six Épigraphs antiques, an incredible work that illustrates Debussy’s fascination with other cultures, in this case, ancient Greece and Egypt.  Wu Han then left Jeffrey alone to tackle excerpts from Granados’s Goyescas, a pianistic tour-de-force that was given a stunning performance, filled with color, atmosphere, and astounding virtuosity.

The final work on the program was also a Music@Menlo first: a piece by Gustav Mahler.  In the 1920’s, composer Erwin Stein made an arrangement of Mahler’s 4th Symphony for large chamber ensemble, and the final movement, with soprano soloist, is a sublime vision of heaven through the eyes of a child.  The work was performed with enormous depth by Suzanne Mentzer, and the ensemble, expertly led by Jorja Fleezanis. The concert closed on a calm, and indeed transported, note.

The festival’s second Saturday is always a big day for our Institute, as the first KYPC (Koret Young Performers Concert) takes place in the afternoon.  These are marathon events that are led up to by not only numerous coachings during the preceding week, but also speech writing and delivery coaching, dress rehearsals including speaking, stage deportment and complete run-throughs.  The YP’s, as they are called, vary in age from ten to eighteen, and although they are grouped somewhat according to age, ability and experience are the dominating decision-makers when it comes time to assign them their repertoire and colleagues.

The Young Performers program is directed by pianist Gloria Chien, herself an International Performers graduate. Gloria is a remarkable pianist and musician who continues to expand her horizons and is steadily building an unassailable reputation.  Her recital last week with Anthony McGill, delivered in the midst of her intense teaching schedule, displayed her stunning capacity for musical discipline and flawless performance under pressure.  All of us are still trying to figure out when she had the time to practice.

Gloria is assisted in her work as Institute Director by a team of teachers, each of whom is also an IP Program graduate: violinists Kristin Lee, Sean Lee, and Hye-Jin Kim; cellists Dmitri Atapine and Nicholas Canellakis; and pianists Hyeyeon Park and Teresa Yu.

Overseeing the complex International Performers program is pianist Gilbert Kalish, who fills this newly-created position this year with poise and wisdom.

Saturday evening brought a long-anticipated Carte Blanche performance by mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke and her husband, the baritone Kelly Markgraf, in the beautiful acoustics of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, one of the festival’s original venues.  Partnered by Gilbert Kalish, one of the world’s leading vocal collaborators, the duo performed together and individually a wide range of repertoire, from Schumann and Poulenc to fascinating songs of Grieg and a powerful, anti-war cycle by Ned Rorem.  The evening finished with a bit of Broadway musical theatrics featuring love duets by Jerome Kern, and everyone went away very happy.

Sunday morning brought another extraordinary Carte Blanche concert, this one by Finnish pianist Juho Pohjonen.  Music@Menlo has been fortunate this summer to have this remarkable artist in residence since the opening concert (in which we played the Beethoven Op. 70 No. 2 trio together).  Juho finished off his stay with a bang, concluding his recital with Liszt’s fearsome Dante Sonata, a pianistic tour-de-force that left the capacity audience in Stent Family Hall agape. Preceding the Liszt was a fascinating pairing of music by Beethoven and Mozart with Scriabin, in a program that highlighted the idea of fantasy in music.  We thank Juho not only for this spectacular concert but also for the special programming which contributed yet another perspective to this summer’s festival theme.

Sasha and Kelly’s magical recital, the inspiring KYPC concert, and Juho’s display of pianistic wizardry would have been enough for any festival weekend, but Music@Menlo is not just any festival.  At six p.m. Sunday, Concert Program IV, Enhanced, began with the haunting sounds: the suite of movements by Bernard Herrmann composed for Alfred Hitchock’s classic film Psycho.  Scored for strings only (for a movie shot in black-and-white), the suite is all the more remarkable to hear without looking at the film, as the sophistication of Herrmann’s writing emerges on its own.  Following the creepy Psycho Suite was an equally chilling and more extended musical accompaniment: Andre Caplet’s The Mask of the Red Death, a fantastic work that narrates the Poe story in vivid detail, using a string plus harp.  Performers Kristin Lee, Sean Lee, Paul Neubauer, Dane Johansen and Bridget Kibbey gave it a breathtaking and chilling performance.  Following the Caplet, the mood turned more peaceful as Suzanne Mentzer took the stage for a sublime performance of Respighi’s Il Tramonto (The Sunset), accompanied by a quartet made up of Jorja Fleezanis, Sean Lee, Geraldine Walther, and Dmitri Atapine.

The concert’s second half was given over entirely to a performance the likes of which has never been mounted at the festival: Stravinsky’s classic, The Soldier’s Tale, performed in its full version, which lasts just over an hour.

Scored for solo violin, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, double bass, and percussion, the piece tells the story of a soldier who is coerced by the devil into trading his violin for a book that tells the future.  Three actors narrated the script: Kay Kostopoulos was the Narrator; Max Rosenak, the Soldier; and James Carpenter, wearing a suggestive red necktie, played the Devil.  It was another first-of-its-kind extravaganza for the festival, which in its tenth anniversary season, is extending itself a bit in many directions in celebration of the milestone.

Stay tuned for next week’s blog which promises to be just as packed with reports.  And do visit the festival web site for reports and videos too wonderful to miss.

*A special advisory: if you have not already, please visit the festival web site ( to see the daily reports of the festival’s events and especially the spectacular videos created by Tristan Cook and his media team.

5 years ago |
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After nine successful years, Music@Menlo, the summer chamber music festival started by David Finckel and Wu Han on the San Francisco Peninsula, opened its doors last week to celebrate a milestone season.  The first week included the concerts, lectures, master classes and festive events that have been a part of the festival since its earliest year.


In David’s words

Like a dream come true, Wu Han and I arrived in San Francisco on consecutive days, from diverse and hectic summer schedules, to open Music@Menlo’s landmark tenth season.  Almost everyone, except the performers and Chamber Music Institute students, had already shown up to prepare.  Some of the interns had been on site for nearly four weeks learning how to perform a wide range of seasonal festival tasks, from managing donor events to selling CD’s, from artist hospitality to concert production.

One of our first stops – one of the most exciting every year – was to see the art of our festival visual artist displayed in Stent Family Hall, one of the festival’s most beloved concert venues and the true heart of Music@Menlo.  This year’s artist is the brilliant Harvard professor Eric J. Heller, who captures actual sound waves and converts them into extraordinarily beautiful graphics.

The festival’s 10-year partner, the New York based ProPiano, was on hand to deliver the dozens of pianos required for concerts and rehearsals, including three always-magnificent Hamburg 9-foot Steinway D’s, the state-of-the-art instrument preferred by artists and venues the world over.

We were delighted to see our CMI faculty hard at work preparing for the imminent arrival of over forty eager young musicians.  This special group of teachers, assembled from past International Performer classes, includes: Institute Director, pianist Gloria Chien; violinists Sean Lee, Kristin Lee, and Hye-Jin Kim; pianists Teresa Yu and Hyeyeon Park; and cellists Dmitri Atapine and Nicholas Canellakis.

Coaches Dmitri Atapine, Hyeyeon Park, and Sean Lee

A significant addition to the Institute’s faculty structure this season is the creation of the International Performers director position, this summer occupied by no less an august musician than pianist Gilbert Kalish.  Gil remains in residence, teaching and performing, for the entire three weeks this summer, and this festival could not be luckier to have him.  His vast experience as a performer and educator are matched by few in the world today.

To introduce the festival and to explain the season’s theme, Resonance, we called on long-time festival friend Ara Guzelimian to present the opening Encounter on Friday evening.  Our association with this deep-thinking and eloquent scholar, educator and administrator goes back many years, having known him in his many distinguished roles at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Aspen Music Festival, Carnegie Hall, and currently at the Juilliard School, where he is both Dean and Provost.  (As such, he is my new boss, having recently joined the Juilliard cello faculty).

Ara spoke movingly about the importance of great music in the world today in a two-hour presentation entitled Why Music?  The events of that day, on everyone’s mind, provided the first opportunity for the topic’s relevance: the massacre in the movie theater in Colorado. Ara reminded us that when human beings commit unspeakable, inhuman acts, we all hope and reach for a sense of renewal of faith in ourselves, in society, and in each other.  Music’s transformative and restorative qualities offer reassurance, emotional footing and sustenance in the most trying of times and circumstances, and Ara shared his own experience of depending on music during a time of personal crisis.  As can always be expected of Ara, his Encounter was not only informative but inspirational, providing all us with a clear view of the weeks ahead, and all of the right reasons to be here in the first place.

On Saturday, the festival’s annual Open House day, Wu Han and I took the stage of Martin Family Lecture Hall to be interviewed by festival Artistic Administrator Patrick Castillo, who is also celebrating his 10th consecutive year with the festival.  Joining us was Executive Director Edward Sweeney, Operations Director Marianne LaCrosse, pianist and Institute Director Gloria Chien, Production Manager Ellen Mezzera, Assistant Artistic Administrator Andrew Goldstein. The unusual discussion focused on the activities and role of Music@Menlo’s remarkable internship program and how it parallels the Chamber Music Institute in training the future music industry.

Patrick Castillo, Gloria Chien, David Finckel, Wu Han, Andrew Goldstein, Edward Sweeney, Ellen Mezzera, Marianne LaCrosse at a question and answer session during Open House Day

After a quick run dress rehearsal for the evening’s concert, I returned to Menlo School where I was privileged to share the stage with Ara Guzelimian for the season’s first Café Conversation, the festival series of presentations by artists and guests on a wide variety of music-related subjects.  Ara and I talked about the use of composers’ original manuscripts as keys to interpretation.  We introduced the Juilliard School’s state-of-the-art web site devoted to its extensive manuscript collection, all of which is viewable online in high definition.  I shared with the large audience of CMI students and Open House public photos from my recent visit to Prague (see the Bohemian Immersion blog from late May) of the manuscripts of Dvorak.  The intrepid CMI International Performers joined us on stage to demonstrate the different possibilities of interpretation revealed by the manuscripts – possibilities not visible in printed editions.

With Ara’s enticing Encounter still fresh in our memories, we were all primed for the first concert on Saturday night in Stent Family Hall on the beautiful campus of Menlo School. After a dynamic Prelude Performance by the International Performers, which included Haydn’s Lark Quartet and Dvorak’s Piano Quartet, Wu Han welcomed the eager audience to the first main stage concert of the anniversary festival.

The opening of this festival has to have been one of the most extraordinary openings of any concert series ever presented.  A program entitled Sustained offered music of the kind that nourishes the soul, fills basic human needs, strengthens and ennobles. One of music’s most profound, joyful and exciting works is the duo for violin and piano that Franz Schubert composed late in his life.  Titled Fantasie, it is just that, with a slow, magical opening of rippling piano chords and a seemingly endless, timeless melody for the violin.  The mystery gives way to a vibrant and brilliant dance, followed by a set of variations on one of Schubert’s most beloved songs, the achingly beautiful Sei mir gegrußt.  After a return of the mysterious opening, the music breaks into a triumphant C major melody, and the piece concludes with unbelievable fireworks from both instruments.  It is universally regarded as one of the most difficult works in classical music.

Rising to the challenge, and well beyond, was returning Finnish pianist Juho Pohjonen partnered with the young violinist – also a recent addition to the CMS Two roster, Benjamin Beilman.  These two musicians, in a jaw-dropping display of virtuosity and equally sensitive musicians, brought our audience to its feet.  It was their first performance of the work – neither of them had ever played it before, either together or separately.

This bar-setting performance was followed by the return on stage of one of Music@Menlo’s most beloved artists: clarinetist Anthony McGill, who was not only with us in the festival’s first season but also in its one-day pilot concert in 2002.  Joining him was the Pacifica Quartet, no strangers to the festival, having performed the complete Mendelssohn quartets two summers ago in the 2009 season, Being Mendelssohn.  The work they played together is one of the all-time favorite pieces of chamber music, the Mozart Clarinet Quintet, well known as a “desert island” piece that many people simply cannot live without.  The heavenly slow movement once again reminded us of the many reasons we began this project in the first place, as we looked over our audience in a state of profound concentration, many overcome with emotion.

Having been soothed by Mozart, and entranced by Schubert, it was time to be strengthened by the composer who does that better than anyone: Ludwig van Beethoven.  From him we chose his magnificent piano trio Op. 70, No. 2 in Eb, a middle-period work that combines the energy of his youth, the expansiveness of his mature style, and hints of the transcendent music of his last years.  I was privileged to be the cellist joining the already-spectacular duo of Benjamin Beilman and Juho Pohjonen.

Sunday morning brought the first Carte Blanche Concert, a tour-de-force by the newly-formed duo of clarinetist Anthony McGill and pianist Gloria Chien.  Over two-and-a-half hours, these indefatigable rendered flawless performances of solo and duo works, including standard literature such as the Poulenc Sonata and novelties such as transcriptions of Scriabin Preludes.  At the program’s emotional center were two extraordinary works for each player as soloist: Scriabin’s Etude for the left hand alone, performed with astounding beauty, accuracy and command by Gloria, and the movement for solo clarinet from Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, played by Anthony in a performance that could only be called sonic magic.  As Gilbert Kalish told me right after the concert “Anthony can do absolutely anything on the clarinet”, and he certainly proved it on Sunday, all before lunch to boot.  It was easily one of the best recitals we have ever heard, and much of it will be available on record, produced by Da-Hong Seetoo.

The weekend finished with another performance of Concert Program I in the Performing Arts Center at Menlo-Atherton.  Stay tuned for next week’s report, appearing here next Monday.

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