Archive for January, 2012

On the 21st anniversary of one of its artistic milestones, the Emerson Quartet returned to Ludwigshafen, Germany, at the end of a European tour, to celebrate its historic performance and recording of the Schubert Cello Quintet with Mstislav Rostropovich.  Joining the quartet on this occasion was the phenomenal young German cellist Nicolas Altstaedt.

In David’s words

Few experiences in the Emerson Quartet’s exciting career have left as deep a mark on us, both personally and musically, as the four days we spent in wintery Ludwigshafen (near Mannheim) and nearby Speyer, with my teacher and mentor, Rostropovich.

Rostropovich, who sadly passed away in 2007 at the age of 80, was the biggest influence on me as a cellist, by miles. He also set for me an example for living, an attitude about performing, and other priorities larger than music. One of the last century’s notable humanitarians, his courageous stand for artistic freedom in the Soviet Union is viewed by many as one of the significant nails in the communist regime coffin.  His contribution to the cello literature – over 200 works composed for him, many by the greatest composers of his age – is unparalleled by any performer in history, of any instrument. I could go on and on, but suffice to finish this small tribute by saying that he was a great human being who gave to the world beyond measure.

The story of that concert, and the recording, is one of personal determination on the quartet’s part, and of generosity and faith on the part of our concert sponsor, the BASF Corporation of Ludwigshafen.  The company recently celebrated the 90th anniversary of its extensive cultural activities, which have been performed on a level of commitment, depth and consistency beyond any corporate arts support I have ever known.

with Dr. and Mrs. Böckmann and Nicolas Altstaedt

At the time of the Rostropovich project, we had a close relationship with the company’s director of culture, Detlef Böckmann, and we were able to convince him that BASF was the proper place to base the project, which would of course involve learning the work with Rostropovich, performing a concert, and making the recording for Deutsche Grammophon.  We made a special journey to the area to audition recording sites, and selected the beautiful Dreifaltigkeitskirche (Holy Trinity Church) in the nearby town of Speyer. The church was built during the Baroque era and the interior is entirely of wood, with gorgeous acoustics.

Arriving in snowy December, we first encountered Rostropovich in the church.  He showed up without a part to the Schubert (I had brought one just in case) and with his cello strings each at least a half step out of tune. When I expressed amazement at this he explained that he had had the cello specially prepared (I’m not sure what this meant) in order to get the most resonant  pizzicati from it for the famous slow movement. (This cello was the “Duport” Stradivari, which he had acquired shortly after he left the Soviet Union in 1974. It was commissioned in 1711 by a wealthy doctor from Lyon who paid Stradivari twice his normal fee for a cello of unusual quality.  It went into the hands of the famous Duport brother who played the premiere of Beethoven’s Sonatas Op. 5 Nos. 1 and 2 in Berlin at the court of King Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia, with Beethoven at the piano. I have since heard that the cello was sold to a collector in Japan, and to my knowledge, no one has seen it since. I did get to play on it quite a bit, though, and soon after I revisited it in Washington with Sam Zygmuntowicz, who copied it when making the cello that I have played since 1993).

The “Duport” Stradivari cello of 1711

The rehearsal was amazing. Slava, for the first run through, seemed to be half-lost and confused about everything, from the bowings to the counting to the page turns.  After we finished the movement, he berated me for not having given him my bowings. We were all speechless.  What do you say when the greatest cellist the world has ever known demands your bowings?

As the rehearsal progressed, things changed.  The next run through was on another level, and soon, we were left in the musical dust as Slava took command of everything, summoning up metaphors, noticing details in the composition, stopping for detailed work, exhorting us to do more of just about everything we thought we were already doing.  It was like being dragged by a freight train. It was exciting, exhausting, and unnerving to be playing with someone who could hear so acutely, whose understanding of the music was so deep, and whose charisma was so overpowering.  We knew exactly how the rest of the week was going to play out.

Listening to playbacks with Slava and producer Chris Alder

The recording sessions went extremely well, up to a point. Slava had seemingly limitless energy and needed almost no sleep. We were lavishly entertained, stayed up late tasting wines, eating way too much food, laughing our heads off at his amazing stories.  This was fine for the most part except that, having retired usually around 2 a.m., our hotel phone would ring at 5:30 or 6:00 a.m., Slava demanding that we join him for breakfast.  This happened every day.

The straw that broke the Emerson’s back was the lunch for us thrown by the mayor of Speyer. After a 3 hour meal of heavy German food, speeches and gallons of beer, we went back across the street to the church to record the slow movement.  It did not feel good. As we listened to only the first minutes of the playback, Slava suddenly called a halt and commanded that we all go back to the hotel for naps.  He simply said the sound was not right.  We did as he instructed, of course, and agreed to return in the evening, after dark. There was no arguing with Slava.

When we arrived back at the church, the snow was falling heavily.  The little town was dead quiet. The scene was every bit as magical as the music itself, and the recording of the slow movement was accomplished that evening in an atmosphere so rarefied as to truly be called incomparable.

It was extremely exciting to return to the place where we had given our one performance of the Schubert with Slava so many years ago.  Of all the people I remembered from the previous time, only Detlef Böckmann and his wife were still there. The majestic Feierabend Haus, the BASF concert hall, has been remodeled and seems brand new, the building itself having undergone extensive renovation. The BASF hospitality is still present, though, with the company’s current cultural director, Klaus Phillipp Seif, presiding over everything from backstage logistics to the beautiful dinner that followed.

with Dr. and Mrs. Seif

For this concert we were joined in the Schubert by the young German cellist Nicolas Altstaedt. Nicolas became known to me several years ago when he journeyed to New York to audition for the Chamber Music Society’s CMS Two program.  Nicolas was admitted to the program and has since played many concerts in New York and on tour, including the Society’s recent visits to London’s Wigmore Hall and the AlpenKlassik Festival in Bad Reichenhall.  It was a pleasure to make music with this enormously gifted and charismatic young cellist, who is part of the legion of European cellists which is setting the highest standards today in cello playing (among them, I am happy to say, are CMS Two’s other two European cellists, Andreas Brantelid and Jakob Koranyi).

Even though it was to be a long day (driving from Zug, Switzerland, to Zurich Airport, returning a rental car, flying to Frankfurt, renting another car, getting stuck in traffic) I still managed to find the time, and energy, to drive the extra distance to Speyer, directly from the airport, to revisit the church where the recording was made.  Although the church was closed on Mondays, I corresponded directly by email (while stuck in traffic) with the pastor, Christine Gölzer, who encouraged me to try my luck by knocking on the housekeeper’s door.  This I did, and it worked.  I was able to spend only about twenty minutes inside, but what wonderful memories came to the surface.  A video of my reunion with this beautiful space, where once I had one of the most wonderful experiences of my life, can be found below:

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David Finckel and Wu Han, deepening their involvement with chamber music in Korea, performed in and presided over the first Chamber Music Today festival in Seoul. The festival’s mission is to bring the finest musicians on the international chamber music scene to perform in Korea every year. As a result of their ongoing relationship with the LG Chamber Music School, David and Wu Han were recruited by the festival’s organizers to lead it artistically.
In David’s words

It had seemed to us that our commitment to the wonderful LG Chamber Music School, including annual visits to teach and perform and a schedule of educational video productions, would be the extent of our involvement with chamber music in Korea.  But we were wrong.

Of all the Asian countries we have visited, Korea has emerged as the region’s leader in terms of interest in and enthusiasm for chamber music.  Although many fine players come from Japan, China and Taiwan, the Koreans are fast outnumbering their neighbors in sending young musicians to major international conservatories, and appearing on concert stages.

[At the moment, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s roster includes seven Koreans: violinists Kristin Lee, Jessica Lee, Yura Lee, Amy Lee, violist Richard O’Neill, pianist Soyeon Lee, and flutist Sooyun Kim. The only other Asians within the Society at this time are the Chinese Wu Han and violinist Cho-Liang Lin.]

The popularity of chamber music in Korea – as measured by audience numbers, demographics and enthusiasm – was a definite encouragement for all who set about creating this new festival. Generously underwritten by the LG Corporation, the festival is hosted and produced by the Korean company Casual Classics, headed by Jeehyun Kim, in collaboration with LG and with us.

For the first festival, the organizers wanted the world’s most famous chamber ensembles.  Well, the Emerson Quartet was available and was happy to go.  As well, the popular young Jupiter Quartet (which boasts a Korean first violinist, Nelson Lee) was also eager to participate.  We decided to round out the three-concert series with a concert of piano trios with Philip Setzer, and lo and behold, the first festival was in place.

The festival began on Saturday evening with a private performance for LG executives and their families. Held in the elegant Plaza Hotel, the evening included performances of Mendelssohn’s D major cello sonata, Mozart’s quartet K. 575, and the Schumann Piano Quintet. After the performance, the audience gathered with us for photos.

We were then treated to an elegant Chinese (!) dinner hosted by Mr. Sang Chul Lee and his wife. Mr. Lee is the Vice Chairman of LG Corporation and the CEO of LGUPlus.

I was presented with a birthday cake made of CMT (Chamber Music Today) cupcakes. The cake was topped with a cellist cookie on which my head was pasted.  Wu Han and I had some fun with it after dinner.

But by far, the moment that touched us all was a surprise film in which a great number of “our” kids from the LG Chamber Music School offered me their affectionate birthday greetings.  I have been promised a copy of the film and when I get it, it will appear here. It’s always amazing to me to find that my students – given how demanding I am of them – still like me!

The occasion called for a speech from me – a rare occurrence, experienced by few.

As the evening progressed, behind the scenes a crisis was emerging: the Jupiter Quartet was having a pregnancy emergency (since successfully and happily resolved) that would prevent them from making the journey to perform. Solving problems such as these are simply part of our job, and with a couple of quick conversations and calls to our indomitable travel agent Diana Hardy, it was determined that the Emerson Quartet could extend its stay, and play another program to substitute for the Jupiter Quartet.

Sunday evening’s first public concert was performed by the Emerson, at the acoustically-excellent IBK Chamber Music Hall at the Seoul Arts Center.  A capacity crowd was a great omen for the festival’s future, and the quartet offered a highly demanding program of Mozart’s K. 590, Beethoven’s Op. 135, and the giant Dvorak Op. 106.

The Quartet was mobbed in the lobby for autographs, especially on its new disc of Mozart Quartets for Sony Classical.

Dinner was hosted by LG Vice President and CFO Sunghyun Kim, an avid and knowledgeable classical music fan.  Vice President Paul Chung, who has been instrumental in committing LG to the Chamber Music School, joined us as well. These two gentlemen – consummate executives – are also among the most fun-loving, generous and gracious of all our business acquaintances.

The Emerson Quartet and Wu Han with Sunghyun Kim

Paul Chung

A fine meal in Korea is a feast for the eyes as well as for the taste buds.  See the end of this blog for a gallery of stunning dishes from the trendy restaurant near the concert hall.

On Monday, it was the Emerson’s turn again, and the quartet offered Mozart’s K. 575, the Bartok 5th, and the Dvorak Quintet with Wu Han. After the concert, we experienced a sensational dinner of barbecued pork with the entire staff of Casual Classics, who worked tirelessly and with great expertise to produce the tightly-packed festival.  They are all dedicated and passionate, and all of us owe them our gratitude and encouragement.

On Tuesday, the festival wrapped up with the D major cello sonata and d minor Trio of Mendelssohn, with the Schubert Bb Trio after intermission.   It was especially gratifying to play this concert, as virtually the entire student body of the LG Chamber Music School was in the audience.

After the concert, there was plenty of picture-taking in the lobby. It was a fitting way to end this first festival, surrounded by Korea’s chamber musicians of the future.  We are honored and happy to be playing a role in their development, and to feel a part of the evolution of chamber music in Korea.

As a postscript, I’ll include the statement written by me and Wu Han for the festival, introducing the art of chamber music and expressing our feelings.

Chamber music is the music of friends. It is an international language that brings people together, and is, at the same time, one of the richest art forms on earth. Chamber Music Today will bring the greatest chamber music repertoire and performers to Korea.  In every concert, we will hear why chamber music has become an exciting, personal and essential experience for audiences around the world.  We look forward not only to performing for Korea’s audience, but also to watching our music form unbreakable bonds of friendship between musicians and listeners. It will be a delight to witness this extraordinary project blossom, as we share in the magical power of chamber music – truly the greatest music of today.

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