Saturday, March 20, 2010

Music feature: Wu Han prepares 'most special' Schubert for Four Arts

David Finckel, Wu Han and Philip Setzer.
(Photo by Christian Steiner)

By Greg Stepanich

If Wu Han had another 50 years, she says, she might follow the traditional path of the professional piano trio: End your career with performances of the two piano trios of Franz Schubert.

“As a piano trio, we’re doing it backwards,” the Taiwanese-born pianist said last week. “We’re not doing it in the normal way of a piano trio: you play Haydn and Mozart trios, then maybe learn one of the Mendelssohn trios. In another five years, you learn the first Schubert trio and let it ferment for five years.

“We’re too old for that,” she said with a laugh, and then points to the Beaux Arts Trio, which indeed retired with Schubert performances. “I don’t have another 50 years in my life. I just do it backwards. I pick the most demanding programs, the most special pieces, the ones I feel the most deeply. And I found the two most incredible string players as partners, and we’re just going to do it.”

With that in mind, she and her husband, Emerson Quartet cellist David Finckel, joined by fellow Emersonian Philip Setzer on violin, will play these great works – the trios in B-flat, D. 898, and E-flat, D.929 – this Sunday afternoon at the Society of the Four Arts in Palm Beach.

Finckel and Wu, who have been married almost 25 years, are among the most eminent chamber musicians in the country. Finckel is doing about 130 dates this year with the Emerson, often regarded as the best American quartet now performing, and a further 30 concerts with his wife. Wu does another 60 concerts by herself, and she and her husband also are kept busy as artistic directors of the Chamber Music Society at Lincoln Center in New York.

The three musicians played the Schubert trios together two years ago at Music@Menlo, the chamber music festival near San Francisco that Finckel and Wu founded in 2003 and still direct. Those performances came a few months after they recorded the trios in April 2008 for another Finckel and Wu project, the ArtistLed record label.

These works, written in 1827, a year before Schubert’s life ran out at the age of 31, remain challenges each time she plays them, she said.

“They are difficult in different ways, each in its own way,” Wu said. “The E-flat is big, structurally demanding. The B-flat is very delicate, and it’s easy to destroy that. You have to play with such ease, even when you are [trying to find] fingering for handling the passages.”

Both trios have “incredible” slow movements as well, she said. “Both have that sort of double-meaning quality in Schubert; if you’re playing a sweet and beautiful melody, it’s not simply just sweet and beautiful. It’s actually much deeper. It always has some tears behind it.”

Perhaps most critical of all is the sense of balance, both in the music itself and among the musicians playing it. “The structure is so important. You have to take just the right amount of time with the rubato so the piece will breathe,” she said. “If you take too long, it drags. If you take it too fast, it’s impatient.”

Wu said she has played these pieces for about 30 years, including with violinist Pamela Frank and cellist Yeesun Kim in a piano trio at the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont, where “we were chewing up repertory like you wouldn’t believe … We did a complete Beethoven cycle, all the Brahms, all the Schubert, and everything under the sun.”

Besides being intimately familiar with her husband’s way of playing, she also is deeply familiar with that of Setzer, who she says was the first person in the United States to ask her to accompany a recital, “before I could barely even speak English.”

“And David and Phil have [had] this quartet relationship for more than 30 years, so [the trio has] a very, very special sort of relationship; it’s a triangle,” she said. That comes in handy for the Schubert trios, which are among “the most intimate and demanding pieces of music, in terms of structure, in terms of technical complement. You have to be so sensitive to the other person’s needs, the other person’s line; you have to be so quick in order to catch it.”

Some of Wu Han’s voracious interest in chamber music comes out when she talks about her performance last week of the Piano Quintet (in G minor, Op. 30) of the overlooked Russian composer Sergei Taneyev (1856-1915), an important pupil of Tchaikovsky who in his turn taught Rachmaninov and Scriabin. Wu played the work, which she calls “a masterpiece,” at the Sanibel Music Festival on Sanibel Island with the Escher Quartet, “a young quartet I’m crazy about,” she said.

“I heard the piece, I loved it. It connected with me,” she said, and apparently it also did with audiences on Florida’s west coast. “It was an amazing experience last night. People went nuts.”

In addition to the Schubert trios, ArtistLed has released a disc of four contemporary cello sonatas by American composers Pierre Jalbert, Lera Auerbach, Bruce Adolphe and George Tsontakis. Finckel and Wu introduced Four Arts audiences to the Auerbach sonata in their appearance two seasons ago, with Wu memorably telling a funny story about the composer’s manic persona.

Although ArtistLed, the first Internet-based classical music record company when it was founded in 1997, looks like a visionary idea for a time in which musicians normally market themselves with DIY-Internet outlets such as MySpace, Wu said the impetus for the label didn’t come about because the two saw untapped potential for the Web.

“We didn’t see it as necessary, we only saw it was something we wanted to do,” she said. “We didn’t see it as a necessity because we actually had recording offers. We just didn’t like the offers. … A lot of offers, your job is to fill the catalog. It’s not doing what your heart leads you to, what’s really important for you, and it’s also not giving you that forum freely enough to express yourself.”

Traditional recording contracts are too restrictive, she said, with demands ranging from mandatory use of specific engineers and even microphones. “Eventually, art becomes secondary,” Wu said. “With ArtistLed we were just looking for a forum where we could do our best work. We had no restriction for what we could record, who we could use as recording engineer, how long it was going to take us to edit, [or] whether we were going to release a recording or not.”

And the Internet “happened to be right there. It was incredibly convenient,” she said. “And we were looking at it and saying ‘How come nobody is doing this? This is great.’”

When they’re not on the road, Wu, 50, and Finckel, 57, live in New York with their 16-year-old daughter, Lilian, whom Wu says is “a very good pianist,” but who is not being pushed into studying music. “She will find her own way,” Wu said.

Audiences who attend Sunday’s concert at the Four Arts are in for a special musical experience, Wu said.

“There will be moments in these two Schubert trios that are so insanely beautiful they take your breath away. There are no words to describe it,” she said. “And it’s not coming from us. It’s coming from Schubert.”

David Finckel, Philip Setzer and Wu Han will appear at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Society of the Four Arts, Palm Beach. Tickets: $10. Call 655-2776 or visit

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