Say cello to the future

David Finckel on leaving the Emerson String Quartet, and the genius of Mendellsohn

Not many people these days have the experience of working with the same group of people for 33 years. To end a working relationship like that must be quite difficult.

That’s exactly what longtime Savannah Music Festival favorite David Finckel is doing. Formerly the cellist with the groundbreaking Emerson String Quartet, Finckel last month announced via a heartfelt blog post that he’d be parting ways with the seminal organization, named after the great writer Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Finckel is leaving the Quartet, in part, to spend more time performing with his longtime wife, pianist Wu Han. The two join together at the Savannah Music Festival — somewhat ironically — with longtime Emerson violinist Philip Setzer to perform three piano trios by Mendelssohn. The husband/wife team have just released a CD of their interpretation of these works. We spoke to Finckel last week.

Chamber music is a very intimate pursuit — there’s no conductor, you look at each other’s faces for cues, you’re sitting a couple of feet apart. How does one go about ending a longstanding artistic relationship which must be second nature by now?

David Finckel: These are personal relationships. That’s the part of the sacrifice that’s going to be the most painful. We will still all be friends — and are still friends — we just won’t see each other as much.

I actually have many exciting and intimate chamber relationships going on all the time especially with my wife. Intimate musical dialogues are not something that’s leaving my life. If anything I’m just widening the circle.

Was the decision cumulative or one of those sudden lightbulb–over–the–head moments?

David Finckel: It’s more intricate than that. There are other professional parts of my life in addition to the Emerson Quartet that have become much more active in last decade. My activity outside the Quartet is quite different than my activity in the Quartet.

In many cases I’m involved in working with institutions and young musicians building for the future of my art form, chamber music in particular. The more of that I do the more I’ve discovered it’s essential that I do it. The calling that’s coming to me to apportion more of my time and energy for the future is getting louder and louder.

There was a gradual leaning in that direction and then certainly it did dawn at a certain point that it’s time. If it boiled down to one word or idea behind this departure it is the concept of time itself. Try as I have, I have not figured out a way to squeeze more than 24 hours in one day, It hasn’t worked. God knows I’ve tried.

I realized that by trying to do too many things at once, I was doing them all kind of poorly, from playing the cello to playing in the Quartet to running festivals. So it’s not necessarily about expanding my life but expanding my focus even more deeply and carefully.

It’s also about creating time to leave free and open for things to fall into. Not looking to fill all my free time.

All that said, you’re actually playing with Philip while you’re here.

David Finckel: Yeah, it’s not like I’m never seeing those guys again! The most exciting and significant development is not my departure but the idea that the Quartet has changed itself into perpetuating institution. That’s much more significant than me leaving.

I would say that I think my departure is a catalyst that has opened up a whole new way of thinking about and above the Quartet, including managers and publicists. I could not be more of an advocate for the option the Emerson Quartet has decided on to continue into the future.

Every few years we read about the imminent death of classical music. Is that as exaggerated as it seems to be or is there something to worry about?

David Finckel: The only thing holding the industry back is lack of leadership. It’s not even about money. The biggest crisis in classical music is a shortage of secure and principled leadership. People have to help lead the industry. I’m going to go in there and do the best I can. People need to be inspired. They need to have that nonsense wiped from their vision.

I’m sure you’ve discussed with your wife the huge boom in classical music interest in Asia. Is that really the new horizon of the art form or has that been somewhat overblown as well?

David Finckel: It’s not overblown in terms of young people studying music very seriously. There are 35 million young people taking piano lessons in China alone! And each of them wants to be Lang Lang. One pianist after another is doing their imitation of Lang Lang. You know what’s going on in minds, and it’s not the right stuff. We have to make sure they have their sights set on real values of what they’re doing.

Asia is a force, a gold mine of talent and ability. But they need — as does every country in one way or another — principled artistic leadership so they don’t get sidetracked into this whole thing of classical music as show business or as a social climbing tool.

Another thing to remember is that all the Asian countries are different. For example, right now there’s an incredible number of great players coming out of Korea. Chamber music there is really taking off for some reason.

Tell us about these Mendelssohn works you’ll be playing here.

David Finckel: Mendelssohn brought together the passion and warmth and fantasy of the Romantic Age and at the same time, because he was such a student of music of Bach and Mozart his music is so classically structured. It’s so beautifully composed, with such clean lines.

Anything he did, he did really well. That includes not only piano and composing, but violin. He was a very fine painter and watercolorist. He read or spoke five or six languages. He was a normal family man, not crazy.

If I wanted to be like someone in history, I would easily pick Mendelssohn. He took advantage of every opportunity that came his way, was talented, brilliant, kind, curious, generous, devoted to his family.

Here’s this Jewish guy, whose family converted when he was a child. It took a Jewish musician to discover and reinvent the music of Bach. He took him to really discover the St. Matthew Passion, to put it on and perform it, and say, “Wake up, everybody!”

David Finckel @ Savannah Music Festival

Mendelssohn Piano Trios

Tue. March 27, 6 p.m. Telfair Academy


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