The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music Q&A: Who will replace the famed Beaux Arts Trio? Cellist David Finckel, violinist Philip Setzer and Pianist Wu Han of the Emerson String Quartet and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center talk about their all-Mendelssohn concert this Friday at the Wisconsin Union Theater in Madison.

February 20, 2012
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ALERT: Want to sing through Haydn’s great oratorio “The Creation”? Then consider going to the FREE Madison Symphony Chorus Community Open Sing! this Tuesday night from 7:30 to 9:30 in the Wisconsin Room of the Overture Center. Scores will be provided and all levels are welcome. You’ll join members of the Madison Symphony Chorus and conductor-director Beverly Taylor, along with choristers from all over the community.  Taylor will lead singersl in a brief rehearsal of the main choruses.Then the public will sing them through with arias sung by soloists from the UW-Madison School of Music. (On Tuesday, March 20, the same group will do Mendelssohn’s oratorio “Elijah.”)

By Jacob Stockinger

Cellist David Finckel made news last week when he announced that after 36 years he would retire at the end of next season from the critically acclaimed, Grammy-winning Emerson String Quartet (below, with Finckel on the far right).By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a link to an NPR story about his retirement:

One of the reasons Finckel gave for the move — he will be replaced in 2013 by British cellist Paul Watkins — was to devote himself to other enterprises, including running the CD label (ArtistLed) and co-directing the famed Chamber Music Society at Lincoln Center, both of which he does with his wife, pianist Wu Han.

Another reason Finckel gave for retiring from the Emerson will be to devote himself to other forms of chamber music – which makes this Friday’s concert at the Wisconsin Union Theater in Madison all the more timely, notable and even newsworthy.

On Friday night at 7:30 is when celllist Finckel and his wife Wu Han will team up with Emerson Quartet violinist Philip Setzer to perform both piano trios and a cello sonata in an all-Mendelssohn program.

It is a mark of the prestige these performers are held in that the concert is officially designated the Fan Taylor Memorial Concert. Each season the Wisconsin Union Theater names a concert in honor of Taylor, the pioneering university arts presenter who founded the Wisconsin Union Theater concert series and led it for many decades.

Here is link to more information, including ticket prices, a video and reviews, of Friday night’s concert by the Finckel, Setzer and Wu, Han Trio:

Could this trio become the new Beaux Arts Trio? David Finckel and Wu Han (below) took time out from their hectic schedule to answer an email Q&A for The Ear about their upcoming concert:

Speaking as members of the Emerson String Quartet and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, how healthy would you say the state of chamber music in America is today compared to the past?

DAVID FINCKEL: Chamber music varies, as do all classical music and serious art forms in America, from very healthy to endangered, depending upon the integrity, commitment of the local presenter and the engagement and support of the community.

We are often encouraged or alarmed when we travel to see different results in different communities. However, we always find intelligent, passionate audience in many different corners of the world.

We find if chamber music is presented in the best way – with intimacy and passion — the audience is always inspired. Because of that, we found through our role in the Emerson Quartet and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, chamber music continues to be a big part of many people’s lives.

How and why did the three of you start a piano trio?

WU HAN: We all love the same repertoire and have enjoyed making music together for quite a long time. It all started with the two Schubert trios (Note: Those trios are available in an exceptional recording, below bottom,  from Artist Led and you can hear some of them at the bottom.) David and I knew Phil Setzer (below top) would be the perfect partner to record with because we all feel very deeply and similarly about that music.

It was such a success that we continued with the Mendelssohn trios now. We don’t know if this trio will continue, but we are letting the repertoire guide us.

Why did you choose an all-Mendelssohn program? Could you give a short introduction to each piece you will play and what you think its importance is or what the audience should listen for?

DAVID FINCKEL: Mendelssohn (below) was not only one of the most skilled and devoted musicians of all time, but his music appeals to a broad spectrum of the public — from those who are musical experts to new listeners.  His ingenious voice well deserves an entire evening’s attention.

The Trio in D Minor, Mendelssohn’s first, shows him in a stormy mood for its outer movements, and offers both a song without words and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” experience in its middle movements. There’s something for everyone in this trio.

The second Trio in C Minor is a more advanced work in terms of its structure, with a final movement that contains extraordinary innovations. Listen for the quiet introducing of a hymn within a folk-inspired movement, and follow its progress towards the conclusion where both ideas are reconciled. It is one of the most magical creations in all of chamber music.

The Sonata for Cello and Piano in D Major is one of Mendelssohn’s most exuberant works. Giving the lion’s share of notes to the piano, the composer nevertheless affords the cello all the main themes and uses the instrument’s signature lyrical strengths to the fullest. It’s an absolute joy to play from start to finish.

Does the piano trio as a musical form or genre lack prestige or popularity compared to the string quartet, and if so why do you think that is?

WU HAN: The piano trio, in our experience, lacks neither prestige nor popularity among classical musicians and certainly among audiences. Not as much literature exists for the piano trio as for the string quartet, though, and as a result not as many professional trios exist as do string quartets.

The challenges of playing trios well are enormous. Ever since the days when Cortot, Thibaud and Casals (below, in that order in 1926)  played trios, the public has expected world-class level of every trio’s members. The standards set by the world’s greatest trios are hard to live up to, but we try.

With the retirement of the incomparable Beaux Arts Trio (below) recently, we have found that chamber music audiences are hungry for trios. We come to Madison to feed them!

What are your plans for the trio in terms of concerts, projects and recordings?

WU HAN: Our trio is not a formally formed ensemble. We don’t even have a name! We have approached our projects simply as musically compatible friends who are eager to perform this repertoire, having always wanted to. We approach our trio’s career, if you can call it that, on a project-by-project basis. After Mendelssohn, there is another in the oven, but we can’t talk about that yet. Stay tuned.

Will you bring new string instruments as well as old ones to the concert?

DAVID FINCKEL: Philip Setzer and I will be playing the violin and cello made for us by Samuel Zygmuntowicz (below, in his workshop photographed by Melissa Hamburg), although I might bring my Guadagnini.

All three of you have performed in Madison at the Wisconsin Union Theater, two of you quite often in the Emerson Quartet and the other as a solo recitalist. Do you have an impression of Madison and its audience?

WU HAN: We consider the Wisconsin Union Theater in Madison one of the most important and distinguished venues in the United States. A visit backstage will reveal, via historic posters, extraordinary seasons of concerts going way back to the Golden Age of instrumental playing in the first half of the 20th century. One is conscious of the tradition of greatness, and, combined with the vibrant, youthful audience, we know it is a place where we have to play our best.

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