David Finckel

The American cellist talks about chamber music, running a music festival and video blogging…

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Cellist David Finckel is a tireless champion of chamber music. Aside from his work with the Emerson Quartet, Finckel heads up the Chamber Society of Lincoln Center with his pianist wife Wu Han with an aim of promoting chamber music throughout the US and abroad, including their recent cultural partnership with Wigmore Hall. In addition, the couple programme and run Music@Menlo out in California, a celebration of chamber music that celebrates its tenth anniversary this summer. In November last year, Finckel and Wu Han were made Musical America’s Musicians of the Year. Finckel celebrated his 60th birthday in December.

David FinckelBefore we get started I wanted to congratulate you both on the Musical America prize.
Oh, thank you, yes that was very flattering. It’s certainly a stretch to imagine just accepting on our own behalf the Musician of the Year Award, however, if we think of accepting this on behalf of all the projects in which we were involved, all the organisations, all the education programmes, the young people, the spreading of chamber music and everything else, then we’re happy to take the prize because we feel that all of those things could always use a shot in the arm.

A major part of winning the prize must have been to do your work with the Chamber Music Society of New York. Tell us about this society.
Well, we have been at the Chamber Music Society as artistic directors since 2004. Our first season of full programming was the 2006/7 season and during the time, we inherited an organisation that was celebrating its 40th anniversary. And we’re the fourth artistic directors. And there are things that have been our main focus since we got here. The first thing was to try to bring in as much coherent programming as possible – to individual programmes and to festivals too. The second thing was to further elevate the importance of younger musicians on the stage. There was already an opening for them with CMS Two, but we also dramatically increased the responsibilities and opportunities for these young musicians, raising them virtually to the level of the senior players and the guest artists. Every CMS ensemble now is a multi-generational ensemble, whether it’s for concerts at Tully Hall here in New York, or on tour, or in recordings. Everybody does everything.

David Finckel and Wu Han

Where do you get these young players from?
When we arrived here, the first set of auditions attracted 50 applicants. At the last set of auditions, there were 260 applicants. The reason the applications went up so high is because people took a look at the increased opportunities that these residencies were offering. So our people that come in now to audition are coming from all over the world to audition for these spots. The presence of the younger artists here has greatly energised everything, from our fellow musicians to the marketing department and to the public, which is learning now to invest their affections in watching these people grow and making new friends. As [my wife] Wu Han said in one interview, ‘If you want to have a family, you’ve got to have kids!’

New music is an important part of the future of a society like yours…
Yes – the burden falls upon us to really seek out what we feel is the best in new chamber music; Wu Han and I do look to composers and new music, but music, too, that carries something of the ethic and the meaning of what good chamber music is. The composers that we gravitate to, for example, know how to write well for the individual instruments, they also have a sense of the potential of chamber music to create dialogues, to have meaningful conversations, to be a discussion among instruments. We also gravitate towards composers who are – I’m looking at our composers here – well like Pierre Jalbert who is simply able to sit down and write a piece and call it Clarinet Trio, as a craftsman, without necessarily having to have a lofty, extra-musical idea behind it. To us, that’s always a sign of somebody who really is a composer.

Yes, without giving a subtitle…
Well, you know, I was reading the other day about how Dvořák used to write. Dvořák went to work at his desk every day, like a desk job, and he just simply sat down and he wrote from 9 o’clock till lunchtime and then he took a break, and then he wrote later and it was his job. He just sat down and he cranked up. Mozart wrote that way too. They didn’t need to have epiphanies of one kind or another in order to be able to come up with an idea for a piece. So, for us it’s exciting to find people who have so much music in them that when you ask them to write it can just come out. We like that.

David Finckel and Wu HanAnd moving onto your festival in Menlo, California – what are your plans this year?
This summer we’re celebrating our tenth anniversary season and we have more main programmes planned for this season. It’s very exciting to have a new hall too [built in 2009] which enables us to do actually more programming because we can put more people in that hall. In other words, we can repeat a programme two times instead of three times, or we can even do a programme just once and everybody gets to hear it. So within our confines of time it creates an opportunity for more artistic depth. We are as well very focussed on our young musicians out there. Our institute has grown – we now have at least 40 young people with us every summer. The festival is still very personal, and there’s quite a lot of interaction between public and artist, and of course there are many free events as well. There are daily free events including masterclasses and lectures and rehearsal and also our pre-concert concerts, the prelude performances are free and open to the public.

Finally, I very much enjoyed your cello video blogs which I thought were rather fun…
Thank you! Well, I don’t have the time to teach privately, but when I do, it’s usually working with chamber ensembles, coaching chamber music – it’s not about playing the cello. And I dare say I’ve accumulated a lot of practical knowledge about playing the cello; if I were to leave the office and be run over by a bus, it would all have gone with me if I hadn’t left it somewhere. Those 100 videos are virtually everything I’ve ever learned about playing the instrument, and before I started the project I did two things: one, I looked around the internet to try to find anything like it, and I couldn’t, so that was one inspiration to do it; and then the second thing, when I asked some video expert people how to do this they said, ‘Well you need this big camera, and you have to have a studio, and you have to have lighting, and you have to have this and everything…’ At that point I just shook my head and I went out and bought my little pink camera that cost $179. So I made these videos wherever I possibly could. And, like you said, people are actually attracted to that aspect of it, that the production values are very low-tech but that the content value is high. That’s what really counts.

Interview by Oliver Condy