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Arriving at noon in the spectacular environs of Aspen, Colorado, directly from appearances at Portland’s Chamber Music Northwest festival, David and Wu Han met and auditioned the four piano trios of their new-inaugurated chamber music program at the Aspen Music Festival. David writes about this new program, the intense musical work, and the trios’ triumphant marathon concert – the culmination of their studies with the duo and Aspen faculty.

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In David’s words
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In the more than thirty years that Wu Han and I have participated at the Aspen Music Festival and School, we have longed to contribute more than our performances to the immense musical life of the festival. Gradually over time, Wu Han developed a private piano class, and this summer – my first at Aspen as the ex-Emerson Quartet cellist – I finally had some time to devote to cellists and the school’s chamber music program.

With the full support of the festival administration, headed by President and CEO Alan Fletcher, and Vice President and Dean of Students Jennifer Johnston, Wu Han and I mounted an immersive chamber music program for twelve students: four from each of our studios, and four violinists. We combined them into four piano trios, assigning their repertoire well in advance of the festival. Many of them had never met each other, but our years of experience running chamber programs helped us to match players and repertoire successfully.

A welcome dinner of Chinese food gathered us all together for the first time.

Our wonderful trios consisted of: violinist Angela Wee, cellist Julia Rosenbaum, and pianist Agata Sorotokin (Shostakovich Trio in e minor); violinist Haruno Sato, cellist Jean Kim, and pianist Adria Ye (Mendelssohn Trio in d minor); violinist Will Hagen, cellist Austin Huntington, and pianist Sarina Zhang (Dvorak “Dumky” Trio); and violinist Fabiola Kim, cellist Hsiao-Hsuan Huang, and pianist Steven Lin (Beethoven “Archduke” Trio).

We, alongside the AMFS faculty, coached the groups every few days during the program. Joining us in the coachings were the teachers of our violinists: Robert Lipsett (Will Hagen), Sylvia Rosenberg (Fabiola Kim) and Masao Kawasaki (Angela Wee). Unfortunately, Paul Kantor’s class of forty-four students took so much of his time he was unable to participate, but he will hopefully join us in future summers.

Robert Lipsett, arguably one of the world’s most influential and successful violin teachers, joined us for a marathon session.

Master cello teacher Richard Aaron (here with Sarina Zhang) was an enthusiastic supporter of the program.

And violinist Sylvia Rosenberg contributed an enormous amount of time, enthusiasm and wisdom. We were also so fortunate as to have the wonderful violinist, violist and pedagogue Masao Kawasaki available to share his vast skill with our students.



We formed a marketing committee which included members of each trio, who met with Aspen’s PR and Marketing director Laura Smith to design and distribute posters around town. Aspen is a very competitive place in which to present a concert, with many events happening daily.


Each work presented offers distinct, musical and technical challenges. The students arrive already very accomplished, so bringing them to the next level takes very thoughtful work during which we utilize every ounce of experience, wisdom and knowledge we possess. The experience for all of us was one of discovery and excitement, and the Aspen Music Festival community awaited the program’s final concert with great anticipation.

Beginning with Beethoven’s great, final piano trio, subtitled the “Archduke”, we worked to find the kind of stability of tempi which would allow the music’s monumental grandeur to emerge on its own. Composed in 1811 and dedicated to Archduke Rudolf of Austria, it is a piece that bridges Beethoven’s “middle” or “heroic” style period with his “late” period, combining the symphonic proportions of the former with the mysticism and modernity of the latter. The pianist is afforded the lion’s share of the difficulties and responsibilities, and Juilliard student Steven Lin gamely absorbed the heavy demands laid on him by the coaching teams. Violinist Fabiola Kim, also from the Juilliard School and a student of Sylvia Rosenberg, contributed passion and dedication to the process, not to mention her naturally sweet sound and solid technique. Cellist Hsaio-Hsuan “Sharen” Huang proved herself a highly communicative chamber artist, making the most of the cello part and proving her talent to us for the second time (she had participated in our now-legendary workshop in Taiwan in 2009, sadly abandoned after one year due to a pullback in Taiwanese government support). Although the Archduke trio looks relatively simple on the page, to play it well takes consummate musicianship, and this young trio matured by leaps and bounds, giving a performance in the final concert that stood among the finest performances we have heard in Aspen, by anyone.

Mendelssohn’s famous d minor trio is the first of his two often-heard works in the genre. It epitomizes the German Romantic style, and is Mendelssohnian through and through, from its stormy outer movements to its song-without-words Andante and its quicksilver Scherzo, in the Midsummer Night’s Dream tradition. Pianist Adria Ye – at fifteen, among the youngest of our students – showed herself equal to the virtuosic challenges that Mendelssohn left us, adding as well a naturally beautiful sound and lyric instinct. Violinist Haruno Sato, a student of Paul Kantor, endured endless requests from the faculty for altered fingerings and bowings to maximize the music’s vocal qualities. Unfazed, she sailed through in the end, offering a truly heated performance that was tender and gripping as required. And cellist Jean Kim, an extremely gifted player on her way to the Curtis Institute in the fall, showed maturity and poise in the midst of one of chamber music’s stormiest works.

Shostakovich’s Trio in e minor is one of chamber music’s most popular and often played pieces. Tackling its unusual difficulties were pianist Agata Sorotokin, cellist Julia Rosenbaum (both Music@Menlo alumnae) and violinist Angela Wee, a student of Masao Kawasaki. Emerging from the dark depths of Soviet Russia under Stalin, Shostakovich’s music takes listeners to different sound worlds, and the drama, irony, wit, intensity and sometimes sheer beauty of his music calls upon extremes from its interpreters. Together, we experimented to discover sounds that were expressive but not necessarily sweet; ways to increase volume to orchestral proportions; Jewish folk music style (we all watched a YouTube video of Zero Mostel singing “If I Were a Rich Man”); and the special kind of technical accuracy that the often-bare textures demand. All in all, these three very young musicians accomplished everything they set out to do, and their powerful performance garnered a standing ovation in middle of the concert – for a work that ends pianissimo, no less. We were proud and our audience was amazed.

Concluding the marathon concert (over two-and-a-half hours long) was Dvorak’s beloved “Dumky” Trio, composed by him on the eve of his journey from Bohemia to the new world in 1891. It is a unique work without anything resembling classical structure: its six movements, each labeled Dumka, are essays in Bohemian nostalgia, filled with music sometimes joyful but often melancholy. It is some of the most personal and beautiful music ever composed, and our trio, consisting of violinist Will Hagen (a Colburn student of Robert Lipsett), cellist Austin Huntington (also from Colburn), and pianist Sarina Zhang (headed to Juilliard this fall), found themselves pressed to extremes of expression, communication and imagination that sometimes left them looking a bit in shock.

Wu Han worked intensively with Sarina to enlarge her sound palette, spending a lot of time on pedaling and touch. Will and Austin, both possessing naturally rich sounds and fine technique, worked hard to match each other and piano, and to enable the work to come across as freely and naturally as if it were improvised. The folk spirit, in the end, was the group’s biggest challenge, as our rigorous training often restricts our ability to play with freedom, spontaneity, and daring. As they concluded the long concert, though, we had the feeling that this trio of remarkable talents had reached a new level in their performance, and we were enormously proud to have played a part in their artistic development.

The program’s closing concert took place in Aspen’s jewel of a venue: The Joan and Irving Harris Concert Hall, this year celebrating its 20th anniversary.

Having recorded our Beethoven Sonatas cycle in Harris Hall for ArtistLed, Wu Han and I have always had a special affection for this sublime space. Our close friendship with Joan Harris and her late husband further cemented our relationship to the hall, but if anything really connected me to if for life, it was the famed acoustical testing of the hall – the first by live musicians – that the Emerson String Quartet performed in the summer of 1993.

After the concert, the happy and relieved young musicians gathered on the lawn for a formal photo, each looking their very best. It was a moment to remember.

Though we have departed for Music@Menlo, we have heard from many sources that the buzz about this program is still continuing around the festival. And our students have become fast friends, and something of a star crowd, having received an invitation post-concert to a gracious meal in the home of Aspen board member Arlene Solomon, pictured here with her husband Chester and the young musicians.

Plans are already under way for next summer’s workshop. Stay tuned for a much-anticipated announcement as this newest addition to the festival grows its roots deeper in the Aspen musical community.

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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.

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In David’s words
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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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