Archive for December, 2012

Arriving from opposite sides of the world, David and Wu Han met in Seoul on December 5th to perform in and preside over the second season of Chamber Music Today, the annual three-day festival they inaugurated last year in collaboration with the Korean company Casual Classic. During the same visit, David interviewed the finalists of the first Mendelssohn Fellowship and announced the recipient of the Fellowship.


In David’s words

Arriving from a chilly Moscow December, one would expect warmer weather in Korea, but not so on December 5th in Seoul. The temperature was approaching single digits, but the clear air and the cheerful atmosphere of Seoul’s Insadong district was a delightful change in environment.

Our mission in Korea last week saw us in at least four roles: as performers, as Artistic Directors of Chamber Music Today and of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (whose artists performed on two of the concerts), and for me, as Artistic Director of the Mendelssohn Fellowship.

Chamber Music Today, inaugurated exactly one year ago, is a three-day festival that brings chamber ensembles and individual performers of international renown to Seoul. The festival consists of four concerts, including one special donor’s concert that kicks off the festival on Saturday night.

After a rehearsal with David Shifrin in a very small studio near the hotel, we showed him around what has become a very familiar neighborhood, filled with shops, restaurants and stands selling alluring street food.

During the day, our CMS musicians spent time teaching the many wonderful students of the LG Chamber Music School, our other major project in Korea.  They came back with glowing reports of the level of talent and dedication, which we have seen develop steadily over the five years we have collaborated with the program. It was shocking to hear, however, that the school we have taught in (usually in hot weather) lacked heat, and that these very special young players are learning under extremely adverse conditions. There are always things we can do better for our musicians of the future, and we pledge to work at it.

The evening brought our first event, the donor’s concert, held this year in Seoul’s Hyatt Hotel, which is positioned on a hill overlooking the city.  The festival is organized and administered by the Casual Classic arts company and its dedicated staff, presided over by director Jeehyun Kim, an irresistible, force-of-nature woman who is passionately dedicated to promoting classical music. Without her extraordinary vision, none of us would have been there.

Wu Han welcomed the small crowd comprised of distinguished guests, many from sponsoring corporations.

With an introduction from Wu Han, the St. Lawrence String Quartet took the stage perform a Haydn quartet.  Geoff Nuttall delivered verbal program notes in his own inimitable and engaging style.

Following the Haydn, Wu Han and I ran through the Brahms e minor sonata to conclude the program, and we moved to the dining area for an elegant Chinese meal.  Near the end, it was time for me to announce the winner of the first Mendelssohn Fellowship. Representatives from the three finalist groups stood by me, tensely, while I kept them waiting for the results, explaining to the crowd the story and mission of the Fellowship (see my blog from June at the time of the Fellowhip’s announcement).

After extensively interviewing all the finalists the day before, assisted by several of my Advisory Committee members, we came to the conclusion that all three were deserving of the prize, and it was a great joy – and relief to all the applicants – that I was able to congratulate them all in front of the enthusiastic crowd.

Left to right, Jeehyun Kim, Wu Han, cellist Yumi Nam, Animas Trio pianist Younkyung Kim, David Finckel, Classikan Ensemble violist Shinkyu Lee, and Animas Trio cellist Sae Rom Kwon

During the event, day had changed to night, and we were treated to a transformed view of Seoul before leaving. Cellist Chris Costanza made friends with the curious looking sculpture in the lobby.

Sunday brought a busy schedule with two concerts. Around lunch time, David Shifrin, Wu Han and I rode to the Seoul Arts Center to the hall where I first played in Korea with the Emerson Quartet many years ago.  This marvelous hall was also home to the festival last year during our first season.

Backstage, Casual Classic pampered us, as usual, with delicious and beautiful snacks.

Our trio concert with David Shifrin consisted of the repertoire on our recent ArtistLed release: Beethoven’s Trio Op.  11, Four Pieces by Max Bruch, and the magnificent late trio by Johannes Brahms. After the concert we hurried out to the lobby, where we experienced one of the most heartening moments in our tours to Korea: meeting the audience.

There are more young people going to our concerts in Korea than I have seen anywhere in the world, in any concert I have performed or attended.  There were probably as many, if not more, listeners under the age of twenty than above, so many that it prompted David Shifrin to joke that Korea seems to have a problem with a declining OLDER audience.  From the demographics of all three audiences at this festival, one could make that a serious argument.

In a short time, it was the St. Lawrence Quartet’s turn to take the stage.

In a few moments, the quartet launched into a galloping first movement of  Beethoven’s Quartet Op. 18 No.  6,  led by violinist Scott St. John. Scott also led the fascinating second work on the program by Osvaldo Golijov, Chamber Music Today’s first performance of a work by a living composer.

After intermission, Geoff Nuttall took the first violin chair for a high-octane performance from start to finish of Mendelssohn’s spectacular quartet, Op. 44 No. 2 in e minor.

The lobby scene after was just as wild and just as young. The St. Lawrence Quartet was ecstatic, and they signed countless autographs for the young listeners.

A delicious dinner of pork barbecue ended late with a photo of some happy and well-fed musicians.

Although Wu Han and I were done with performing by Monday, we had a very busy day, beginning with a long strategy meeting with the winners of the Mendelssohn Fellowship. Our purpose was to identify the young musicians’ strong points and to help them by guiding their projects forward.  Wu Han joined me in talking with the young musicians, and we shared with them a lot of conventional wisdom gleaned from our years of entrepreneurial work. Stay tuned for a next chapter on the exciting work of the new Mendelssohn Fellows.

With cellist Yumi Nam

  The third and final concert of this year’s Chamber Music Today festival was presented entirely by a stellar group of artists of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. It was CMS’s Korean debut.

Traveling all the way to Korea for this single appearance were violinists Kristin Lee and Erin Keefe, violist Paul Neubauer, cellist Nicholas Canellakis, and pianist Gilbert Kalish. David Shifrin joined them and was the only artist of the Society to appear in two concerts, besides us.

This performance took place in the more intimate Sejong Hall, near to our hotel and the historic palace.

The performance began with Dohnanyi’s fantastic Serenade for string trio, performed spectacularly by Kristin Lee,  Paul Neubauer, and Nicholas Canellakis. For Kristin, a native Korean, it was a special moment for her to play there with CMS for the first time, especially with the musicians who have now become her regular colleagues and friends. Her parents and many family members and friends attended, and throughout our visit, she proved the perfect hostess, tour guide and companion.

The string trio was followed by David Shifrin and Gil Kalish in a performance of Debussy’s Premiere Rhapsody, a showpiece for clarinet which we have heard David perform on numerous occasions. David’s unequalled capacity for variety of color and nuance makes his performance of this work, for us, definitive, and the audience’s vocal response was indeed appropriate. Our listeners here, though young, seem to know what’s good, and they certainly got a lot of it in during the evening.

Erin Keefe then joined these two musicians for a bracing and uncannily accurate performance of Bartok’s Contrasts for clarinet, violin and piano.

After intermission, a performance of the Brahms piano quintet concluded the program.  In the opinion of many, Gil Kalish is one of the great Brahms interpreters of our time, bringing to the table his unbelievably rich tone, solid musical reasoning, crystal-clear articulation, natural phrasing, and an enormously powerful sound. Playing Brahms with him – and I’m lucky to have had many opportunities – is a chamber musician’s dream, one that certainly came true for his collaborators in this performance.

After being rewarded with numerous curtain calls, the ensemble quickly made its way to the lobby to greet Chamber Music Today’s signature audience. One of our musicians commented that it felt like a grown up concert with a children’s concert audience, and he could  not have been more correct.

The temperature outside (and also in the lobby – none of the Korean lobbies seem to be heated) had dropped to the lowest mark of our visit so far, yet we braved the elements for a very brisk walk to a restaurant only a block away, for a meal organized and hosted by LG executive Sunghyun Kim. Sunghyun is, without a doubt, the most musically literate CFO we know, and he astounded our performers during dinner with the combination of his relaxed personality and enormous knowledge of our art form, not to mention, entertaining us with a true insider’s perspective of one of the world’s largest and most successful media companies.

Sunghyun Kim, left

True to tradition, everyone had early flights the next morning, but that stopped not one of us from enjoying absolutely mouth-watering barbecue, with all the Korean trimmings, and an astonishing amount of Shoju.

The evening ended with a photograph that included the whole cast, including Sunghyun Kim and his fellow LG executive Jun Yung (center), Jeehyun Kim and her staff, and of course, all of the musicians. Somehow the night didn’t feel so cold anymore, and I believe I speak for all of us when I  say that we left Korea inspired by the audiences, warmed by the friendship, and eager to return to continue playing and teaching chamber music in this extraordinary society.

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In little more than 24 hours, the Emerson Quartet blasted in and out of Moscow to perform at the December Nights Festival for the first time. Despite the exhausting travel schedule, David took every opportunity he could to fully experience this amazing city.


In David’s words

Not many soloists or ensembles from America plan and execute run-outs to Russia. The fact that Moscow sits on the east side of the vast country does little to make it seem any closer.  Having flown into Boston Sunday morning, rehearsed, and played a concert for the Celebrity Series, the quartet shared a few hurried minutes with the series’ donors, well-wishers, and autograph seekers.  The Celebrity Series, always the efficient and thoughtful host, had a car waiting to rush the quartet to Boston’s Logan Airport for a 7:45 p.m. Air France flight to Paris.

My formula of avoiding alcohol or coffee, plus a sleeping pill, worked like a charm, and I slept the whole way over. At Charles de Gaulle, there was another mad dash for the connecting flight to Moscow. During the long flight, the new-found daylight faded to dusk and eventually the sky turned dark as we had changed time zones into Monday evening (Russia has nine time zones).  And the days are short during the Moscow winter.

Getting through customs at the airport is a crazy prospect for anyone carrying an instrument.  The officials, wanting to make sure you don’t take any instruments out of Russia that aren’t yours, insist on a long, drawn-out procedure that requires musicians to arrive with sets of detailed photos of instruments and bows, plus papers stating ownership and value.   There have been recent stories of musicians not having had the proper paperwork and going through nightmares, so we were all well prepared.  I am thankful every day that I have a crackerjack staff who takes care of most of the work for me; I don’t know how other musicians manage to find the time. Maria, our charming host from the festival, was waiting for us at customs, ready to explain everything we needed to know. Without her, one torturous hour could have easily turned into three.

After the very slow process of customs agents examining our instruments, copying passports, stamping documents, etc., we emerged into the cold Moscow night, cramming ourselves into a van. We were warned of traffic going into Moscow (at 7:30 p.m.) and sure enough, we sat on the highways for nearly two hours on a trip that should only take 30 minutes.

Arrival at the elegant Marriott Tverskaya was a relief.  I was quickly in touch with my good friend Igor Naidin, violist of the Borodin Quartet, and within 40 minutes he arrived at the hotel, ready to take us out to dinner. We enjoyed a brisk walk to the famous Pushkin Café, a reconstructed, historically-informed environment that harks back to the days of the founder of modern Russian literature.

Alexander Pushkin lived roughly during the time of Beethoven, and was the first to introduce international concepts into Russian literature, excelling in every genre he tackled.  Such was the magnetism of his work that it became the inspiration for composers such as Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Rachmaninov and Stravinsky.  The stories of the famous operas we know – Eugene Onegin, Boris Godunov, the Queen of Spades – all came from Pushkin’s pen.  He died tragically in a duel at the age of 37.

Monument of Pushkin in Pushkin Place

Igor Naidin is both the youngest and longest-tenured member of his quartet.  The Borodin Quartet, famous and beloved by audiences the world over for its definitive performances and recordings of a wide range of literature, has had many personnel changes since it was founded in 1945 at the Moscow Conservatory. The original cellist was none other than Rostropovich, who soon left to pursue, understandably, his unparalleled career as a soloist. His replacement, Valentin Berlinsky, was a fantastic cellist, one of the best in a quartet ever. His tone, technique and musicianship helped guide the group throughout its history until he passed away in 2008. (Several years ago, I became the proud owner of Berlinsky’s bow, which he used for concerts for duration of his career).

Having a tireless, generous and fun-loving local as a guide in a foreign city like Moscow is an indispensable asset if you want to make the most out of a short stay.  After dinner, we headed back to the hotel where we took Igor up on his offer to drive us around Moscow during the late-night, low-traffic hours. The sights were so extraordinary that I hardly noticed the bitter cold.

Our first stop was the street monument in memory of Rostropovich.  The stunningly realistic sculpture was unveiled in 2012, five years after the great musician’s passing. What a triumph for Slava and his family to be so embraced by the government which once persecuted them and stripped them of their citizenship. Slava is positioned facing the building in which he and Shostakovich owned apartments, with the Conservatory where he learned and taught only couple of blocks behind him, and a beautiful old church to his left.

Although Slava is hunched over his cello in a way that I never saw, the perspective from the street is a familiar one that so many people experienced while sitting below him at a concert, staring up his unbelievably intense face and long fingers running over the strings like a giant spider.  The statue certainly brings back memories, and captures Slava the way so many hundreds of thousands remember him.

It was a very short hop from Slava’s memorial to that of another great Russian musician, Tchaikovsky, who is imposingly positioned directly in front of the Moscow Conservatory.

From there we headed directly to the Kremlin, passing the magnificent Bolshoi Opera House on the way.

One of the great tourist sites of the world, the Kremlin looks even more spectacular at night, and perhaps more friendly as well. We returned to the hotel exhausted but dazzled and inspired.

Up early the next morning, I squeezed in several hours of practicing before being met by Maria and our faithful driver Maxim, who had volunteered to take us to the Novodevechy cemetery, one of, if not the most legendary cemetery in the world. Literally all of Russia’s cultural heroes lie there, including the recent arrival Rostropovich.  I simply had to go, but unfortunately, my colleagues in the quartet were either too tired or busy to go (some of them had seen it on our last visit here, seven years ago). On the way we encountered stunning sights like this one-of-many Stalinist-style buildings (now a Radisson Hotel) and the Russian White House.

But the sight of the beautiful Novodevechy Convent (once a 13th century fortress) heightened anticipation of a profound experience.

There was a gentle snow falling, the light was on the dim side, and upon entering the cemetery one is captivated by its magic.

With headstones chiefly black in color, it is somber without being depressing.  Most of the tall stones have sculpted heads on them, so the place feels full of personalities. The capping of snow made many of them look like cone-heads, for those of you who remember these characters from Saturday Night Live.

Slava being Slava, unstoppable and refusing any answer but yes when he wanted something, somehow posthumously secured for himself the absolute prime site in the cemetery for his grave, right on the corner, halfway down the main pathway.  You can see his headstone from the street.  They must have moved someone out of there for him.

It is still shocking for me to see his dates written. They delineate the earthly life of a man who all of us expected, somehow, to be around forever. Thankfully, Slava’s great legacy is one of the most well-documented in musical history, and I need only to put on his early recording of the Saint-Saens Concerto to recall the excitement and inspiration I felt when I first heard it at ten years old.

Next, we went to see the grave of Shostakovich, and it makes one realize how much changed in Russia between 1974 and 2007.  Off to the side, in another area walled off from the main part, Shostakovich’s plain stone block sits on a narrow path that had not even been shoveled.  It is, however, completely in character with the composer: simple, not wanting to call attention to itself, modest and withdrawn.

The cemetery map, even after one wipes the snow off, is almost impossible to read, and then proves inaccurate once you do find your destination.  We had to ask the snow-shovelers where the grave of Shostakovich was.  There are no markers directing you to famous people.

After paying my respects to the composer whose music I’ve played perhaps more than any composer save Beethoven, we circled around to find the grave of the violinist David Oistrakh, a colleague of Rostropovich with whom he performed often.  One of the great violinists of all time, his legendary recordings still set the standard for beauty of sound, for the most heartfelt renderings of the major classics such as the Brahms Concerto, and for the great works he premiered by Shostakovich.  His grave, although not well marked, is relatively hard to miss, as a sculpture of him playing is positioned atop the stone.

On our way out I happened upon a gravestone with music on it, and instantly recognized the beautiful first phrase of Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations.  The grave, I learned, belonged to the great Russian cellist Sviatoslav Knushevitsky, who performed in a piano trio with David Oistrakh and pianist Lev Oborin.

I dashed to the hotel just in time to gather things for the rehearsal and concert. Cramming into the van again, we drove a short distance to our venue, the Pushkin Museum.

The Pushkin Museum is one of Moscow’s great art museums; it has nothing to do with Pushkin save the name, which was given to it in 1937 on the hundredth anniversary of the writer’s death.  The grand building houses a stunning collection, including the only painting that Vincent van Gogh ever sold, and the famous trove of gold looted from Troy by the German archeologist Heinrich Schliemann. The museum has been the home of the December Nights Festival since the festival’s founding in 1981.

The concerts take place in a large, high-ceilinged rectangular room with a stone floor and booming acoustics.

The pre-concert preparations included all kinds of challenges (no music stands, no cello platform, a wandering recording engineer setting up microphones hovering precariously over us, etc.)

But we were rewarded at the end of the rehearsal with a dressing area in one of the sculpture galleries, with food graciously laid out and many people to tend to our needs.  It was truly a unique backstage scene. The bathroom is two long flights down.

Larry consulted Igor about note discrepancies in the viola part of Shostakovich Quartet No. 12. Igor told us that his quartet – the leading authority on the works – has discovered many inconsistencies and questionable notes in the cycle.

The concert went off without a hitch and the public was very appreciative; the Shostakovich Quartet carried an understandably special intensity. (I will describe in detail, experiences of playing under heightened, extraordinary circumstances, in a forthcoming Huffington Post blog, sometime after May.)

At the conclusion of the concert, the audience and musicians all race to get through the same door which is about 10 feet wide.  It was quite a challenge.

Igor was backstage ready to whisk us off to dinner, but not before we met two distinguished ladies: Irina Shostakovich, the third and final spouse of the composer, and Natalya Solzhenitsyn, widow of the great dissident writer whom Rostropovich housed in his dacha during the writer’s banishment from Moscow.

Irina Shostakovich, right

Dinner was at the Tchaikovsky Restaurant near the hotel, a musician hangout, where we all had lots of good food and vodka. As we ate, violist Yuri Bashmet, the director of the December Nights Festival, passed by after his dinner, saying a nice hello without apology for having missed our concert.

I’m not sure when or if I will return to Russia in the future.  But on this visit I accomplished some important missions and had a very wonderful time.  A future trip, if it happens, will be for much longer duration, and will provide many mre opportunities for playing, teaching and learning.

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