The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music profiles: Part 1 of a two-part interview with cellist David Finckel of the Emerson String Quartet about their Jan. 22 concert in Madison | January 11, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

Cellist David Finckel (below right) recently answered questions via e-mail (while he was on tour in Asia) about the Emerson String Quartet and its upcoming concert at the Wisconsin Union Theater on Friday, Jan. 22, at 8 p.m.

The program for the Fan Taylor Memorial Concert (Taylor was the first director of the Wisconsin Union Theater) is Ives’ String Quartet No. 1, Dvorak’s quartet, Op. 51, and Beethoven’s late quartet, Op. 127.

Tickets are $18, $35 and $40 with $10 admission for UW students. Call 262-2201.

For The Ear, the combination of artists and program make this a MUST-HEAR concert. Chamber music just doesn’t get better.

Here is link to the Wisconsin Union Theater:

And here is a link to the home page for the Emerson String Quartet, which includes profiles of the members:

And here is a link to David Finckel’s home page for ArtistLed CDs, which he owns with his wife pianist Wu Han:

And here is Part 1 of my interview with David Finckel, who studied with famed celllist Mstislav Rostropovich:

Chamber music has the reputation of drawing older listeners, much like classical music in general. What, if anything, can be done – and what do you and your wife pianist Wu Han do at the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society – to reach younger listeners and a wider audience? Or is it just something that one grows into as one matures in listening habits and likes?

I have never believed that just because people become older they somehow magically come to like classical music.  There are other factors involved – free time, no kids to take care of, a tiring of popular culture – that may well lead people to become more engaged with the art.  But that can happen to younger people as well.

There’s not much one can do with chamber music especially to make it more interesting than it already is. People have to come to it, not the other way around. It is not as visually diverse as a symphony or opera performance.  But if one becomes involved, the art form presents myriad opportunities for fulfillment.

The most important thing we do in presenting is truth in advertising – not to promise anything other than what the real experience will be.

This, we believe, will gain the trust of new listeners, and getting the trust of your public is the most essential element of building and keeping an audience.

As I recall, you often play cellos made today as well as great old instruments. How do they compare with old ones?

Regarding cellos, yes, I’m a great fan of contemporary makers and believe that a really fine new instrument can be the best asset for serious and aspiring young player.

Except for the finest early instruments, in the best condition, the great new ones are infinitely better in every way: volume and richness of tone, ease of playing, reliability and stability, not to mention cost.

You and the quartet (and your wife Wu Han, below) have played concerts in Madison several times. Do you have any recollections or impressions of the city and its classical music audiences? Of the Wisconsin Union Theater?

Our impression of Wisconsin Union Theater are indelible, and they are mostly so because of the distinguished history of concerts.  The posters backstage remind everyone who plays there that they have been preceded by the greatest performers the world has every known.  So you have to live up to the standard the venue has set, and to become a worthy part of its legacy.

Your new Emerson CD “Intimate Letters,” with music of Janacek and Martinu, is up for a Grammy. What are your plans for your next CD or two? Is there any chance of a second Haydn Project since he wrote so many great quartets?

At the moment, the Emerson is involved in a large project of Dvorak.  We have to get that out the door before we consider the next repertoire.  There are still many quartets that we would like to record, even though we’ve made so many recordings already.  We are really very fortunate.

What do you think of the state of string quartet composing today? Are there specific composers or new quartets (music) that you admire and add to your repertoire?

String quartet composing is just as challenging today as it was in the time that Haydn set new standards that everyone had to live up to. Many living composers have embarked on ambitious, multi-quartet cycles, among them Carter, Harbison, Wernick, Tsontakis, Widmann.  One of the final compositions of the late Leon Kirchner was his fifth quartet, and the whole cycle was recently recorded by the Orion Quartet. Most important for us is that a composer understands the capabilities and limitations of the instruments, and that they have a true sense of chamber music conversational style.

Are there younger string quartets (St. Lawrence, Pacific, Orion, Brentano) that you think are especially promising for the future of chamber music?

All of the young string quartets that you mention ARE the future of chamber music, along with many of their colleagues.  These groups are truly modern in the sense that they know, as young artists do today, that they must make their own careers, and that there’s no real “industry” left to do that anymore.  All the young groups are very well equipped and passionate.  We are counting on them.

What is the state of string quartets in the U.S. today?

I don’t think there are more professional quartets now than earlier.  I have heard that there has actually been a severe reduction in the number since the early 1980s. I do know that we see fewer and fewer quartets and real classical chamber ensembles on series around this country.  Many series have mixed in other disciplines, and this has not developed the classical listenership.

Tomorrow: David Finckel speaks about its Madison program,  the UW Pro Arte String Quartet, and offers advice to young chamber music players .

Posted in Classical music

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