Archive for the ‘Life’ Category

In a single, momentous week in May, David Finckel performed in numerous cities in a variety of roles. Here is his account of seven days, including his various concerts and the definitive, insider’s report on his long-awaited departure from the Emerson String Quartet.


In David’s words

Saturday, May 4   Reneé Fleming in Carnegie Hall

The opportunity to perform in Carnegie Hall is every musician’s dream.  I’ve been fortunate to play there many times, and my momentous week began in the Stern Auditorium (the main stage) in a concert belonging to soprano Renée Fleming, who had invited us to appear on the final performance of her Carnegie Hall Perspectives series.

In her intriguing program entitled “Window to Modernity”, she presented music from the transitional period between the Romantic and Modern eras, beginning with late Brahms and exploring music generated from the Second Viennese School.  Along with songs by Zeisl, Wellesz, Wagner, and Weigl, we performed Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night with colleagues from our recent recording, Paul Neubauer and Colin Carr. Pianist Jeremy Denk appeared with Renée in various repertoire, and performed two pieces from Brahms’s Op. 118. Renée hosted the concert, speaking about the music to the audience during the many complex stage changes.

At the post-concert reception, the musicians gathered with audience members Ronald Schoenberg and Barbara Zeisl-Schoenberg, the children of the composer. Ronald resembles his famous father very strongly.

Post Concert Party- Left to Right: Ronald Schoenberg, Philip Setzer, Barbara Zeisl-Schoenberg, Reneé Fleming, Eugene Drucker, Jeremy Denk, Lawrence Dutton, David Finckel

Sunday, May 5: The Trio plays in Montreal

The next morning, Philip Setzer, Wu Han and I left early for the Ladies Morning Musical Club series in Montreal. A longtime venue for the Emerson Quartet, and more recently our trio, we were welcomed for our second appearance that included performances of Haydn’s A major Trio, Dvorak’s “Dumky” Trio, and Mendelssohn’s d minor Trio.

Artists who perform for this series, which is held in the wonderful Pollack concert hall at McGill University, are always treated to the best of care and feeding.

Left to Right: David Finckel, Monique Prévost, Philip Setzer, Michèle Nepveu, Wu Han

As the concert ended by 5 p.m., we managed to return to New York that same evening.

Monday, May 6:  First rehearsal with Paul Watkins, Greene Space performance, CMS gala

After meetings which began at 8:00 a.m. and ran until lunchtime, Wu Han and I welcomed Gene, Phil, Larry and my Emerson Quartet successor Paul Watkins to our newly-expanded living room to rehearse the Schubert Cello Quintet. We were performing the Quintet at both the Chamber Music Society gala that night, and for my final concert with the Quartet the following Saturday.

The last time the quartet had rehearsed in our old apartment, it looked like this:

And by April, it looked like this:

It was the first time we got a look at the new ESQ.

The rehearsal was wonderful: intense, musical, friendly, joyful and celebratory.

Unbelievably, between our rehearsal and performance for the CMS gala, the Quartet raced down to WQXR’s Greene Space performance and broadcast venue for an hour-long, live streamed interview and concert, hosted by Jeff Spurgeon and produced by Martha Bonta. The quartet was joined by cellist Colin Carr and violist Paul Neubauer, who graciously agreed to play with us to promote our about-to-be-released CD “Journeys”, featuring string sextets by Schoenberg (Transfigured Night), and Tchaikovsky (Souvenir of Florence.)

A video of the performance can be found here.

After the performance and interviews, we were whisked past a throng of enthusiastic Emerson fans who had turned out to see my last public performance with the quartet in New York, into a van for a swift trip to the St. Regis Hotel, site of the CMS spring gala.

The room at the St. Regis is elegant and held 26 tables purchased by patrons and CMS board members, each of whom invited their own guests. Our gala chairs were James and Melissa O’Shaughnessy, Joan Harris, Elizabeth Smith, and Erwin and Pearl Staller, and the room was filled with an international collection of Emerson Quartet fans who had turned out to honor the quartet, past, present and future,  some coming from as far away as Seoul, Korea.

Within minutes of our arrival, we walked onto the stage to perform the Schubert Quintet, Paul Watkins taking his first bow as the incoming cellist of the Quartet.

After the performance, which was rewarded with a thunderous ovation, the speeches began.  We received gifts from Peter Frelinghuysen, Chairman of the Board, and the five us posed for our first picture together in public.

I then took the lectern to speak, paying tribute to the quartet from CMS, and, from the perspective of the Emerson, thanking CMS for its support over the years and the evening’s honor.

Having donned both CMS and ESQ hats during my dual-role remarks (much to the amusement of the guests) I concluded by officially welcoming Paul to the Quartet and crowning him with the ESQ hat.

The event was a stunning success, raising a hefty sum for CMS and providing the quartet and our families – all of whom attended – with an elegant and heartwarming occasion in which to celebrate the Quartet’s many accomplishments and exciting future.

Tuesday, May 7: The Quartet’s last tour performance, Buffalo, NY

Rising early after a late night with the Chamber Music Society, the four of us left for Buffalo to perform our last full quartet concert together. Fittingly, it was on one of America’s most hallowed chamber music series, which this year celebrates its 90th anniversary. We have appeared on this distinguished series many times, and our audience in this quartet-focused town has often included musical luminaries and mentors, such as Budapest Quartet cellist Mischa Schneider way back in the 1981-82 season.

Upon arriving in Buffalo, we learned almost immediately that the Buffalo Philharmonic was to play in Carnegie Hall the following evening as part of the Spring for Music orchestral festival. The city was immensely proud, with signage everywhere congratulating the orchestra on its coming appearance.

The Buffalo concert encapsulated many of the realities of heavy touring: Early flights for all; a lengthy, in-studio radio interview for me immediately on arrival; some crammed practicing in the hotel; an even more hectic rehearsal in which we prepared not only for Buffalo but for Washington’s concert; a very difficult program which included my last performances of Berg’s Lyric Suite, Dvorak’s d minor quartet, and Mozart’s quartet K. 499 in front of a discriminating audience; and finally, a post-concert trek back to the hotel for some Buffalo chicken wings for dinner.

Wednesday, May 8: CMS at the Harris Theater, Chicago

While my colleagues returned home to New York, I hurried to Chicago for the final performance of the Chamber Music Society’s annual series at Harris Theater. Beginning last year, the series has proved a stunning success, and our partnership with the theater has just been extended for another three seasons.

We were very proud to bring to Chicago the Society’s first all-Britten program, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth and the first such program in the history of CMS. On the program were Britten classics and novelties, including many extraordinary works composed at the beginning of his career. Of musicians featured were the Orion String Quartet, oboist James Austin Smith, pianist Gloria Chien, tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, countertenor Daniel Taylor, and me and Wu Han, who concluded the concert with Britten’s Sonata in C of 1961, composed for cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. I played the sonata for Rostropovich when I was in my mid-teens; one of the many rare opportunities I have had to play for musicians to whom composers dedicated their works to.

Cellist Tim Eddy

Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac for Countertenor, Tenor, and Piano, Op. 51

Phantasy Quartet for Oboe, Violin, Viola, and Cello, Op. 2

James Austin Smith, Gloria Chien

James Austin Smith, Gloria Chien

After the concert, which was attended by over 800 wildly enthusiastic patrons, we were graciously treated to a relaxed dinner in the stunningly beautiful home of Joan Harris.

Joan Harris, center

Thursday, May 9: A special rehearsal and another important gala

Upon our return to New York the next day on yet another early flight, we welcomed the eminent pianist Menahem Pressler to our home for lunch and a rehearsal with Wu Han. Next season, Menahem, the pianist of the Beaux Arts Trio for more than fifty years, celebrates his 90th birthday with special concerts in some of the world’s most distinguished venues. The Chamber Music Society will honor him with a concert in December, where he will be joined by Wu Han, violinist Daniel Hope, myself, and the new Emerson Quartet. And earlier, in November, Wu Han flies to Paris to join Menahem as a four-hand partner at the Salle Gaveau. I was treated to the sounds of their Schubert as I worked in my office.

After they finished, I invited Menahem to witness a poignant, personal moment in my career. While organizing my music for the coming weekend, I found that my concert binder contained only three more works that I would play with my quartet – quite a reduction from the usual thirty to forty pieces that the quartet has carried annually for so many years. But I was heartened to be able to beef up this collection with the music of my new future – trios, solo works, and a variety of wonderful chamber pieces that I will play within the next month. And once again, my concert folder felt heavy and full again, to the delight of both of us.

With hardly a break, Wu Han and I dressed up to look our best and headed off for an important Lincoln Center event: the annual Lincoln Center gala, honoring the President of Lincoln Center, Reynold Levy, who will step down in December after eleven years of service. During his tenure, he has raised well over a billion dollars for Lincoln Center, and has overseen the mammoth redevelopment of the campus, which included the stunning renovation of our own Alice Tully Hall in its initial phase. Lincoln Center, and indeed all of New York, owes Reynold incalculable gratitude, and we were more than proud to have been invited to this event personally by him. The Chamber Music Society made us proud to have purchased a table, which was well stocked with our prominent board members, and we were more than thrilled to be seated by Reynold with his close friend, Lincoln Center board member Bart Friedman, former Ambassador to China, Winston Lord, and his wife, novelist Bette Bao Lord, and United States Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice.

Lincoln Center Board Chair Katherine Farley welcomes Reynold Levy to the stage

We were also delighted to have a brief but ecstatic moment with two people whom we deeply admire, and who we are now privileged to count among our good friends: Ric Scofidio and Elizabeth Diller, the brilliant architects who re-imagined Lincoln Center to universal acclaim, and who have just been announced as the winning architects for the coming MoMA re-design.

Friday, May 10: Rehearsals, teaching and the CMS Britten Centennial concert

Friday morning was spent  in our gorgeous, and I believe now-incomparable,  Alice Tully Hall. I personally have not heard a chamber hall in the world, especially of that size (900-1000 seats) with such extraordinary acoustics.  And what a pleasure to hear the amazing music of Benjamin Britten in it, with all its ingenious details and vibrant colors so clearly and compellingly heard.

In between rehearsal and concert I spent some serious time at the Juilliard School, meeting with the administration and coaching some ensembles.  Next year I will be able to gradually increase my teaching availability, and I am already wondering how I can possibly take on the six chamber ensembles that have asked me to work with them during the fall semester.

That evening we repeated the Chicago program, and once again, the large audience responded with the kind of excitement that presenters dream of – especially for programs of 20th century music. Our capping of the program with the Sonata was a personal highlight of our year, and a great way for us to finish our performances for the CMS 2012-13 season. Although I am usually not one to talk about reviews, I cannot help but mention the three raves this program received in Chicago, and the rare stamp of complete approval from the New York Times.

After the concert, there was a party for members of CMS Now, a membership program for young professionals created by CMS Director of Marketing Lauren Bailey.  Approximately 100  young listeners jammed the Rose Studio to spend some relaxed, quality time together, imbibing wonderful wines and spirits provided by Warwick Vineyards and event sponsor The L Magazine.

Photo credit: Tristan Cook

Photo credit: Tristan Cook

Saturday, May 11: Packing for a long trip, a cello recital, a train trip, my final Emerson concert

After a short night, we were up early to pack for our upcoming trip to California, then Korea. I was at the Juilliard School at 8:30am to hear the dress rehearsal of my cello student, Sarina Zhang, in Paul Recital Hall. Sarina has graduated with distinction from Juilliard Pre-College and will continue her cello studies next year at the college with Richard Aaron and myself, and her piano studies with Yoheved Kaplinsky.

After some brief work in the CMS office (which is a 60-second walk from the Juilliard School) I returned at 11 a.m. to Paul Hall to hear Sarina and her pianist Carlos Avila perform Beethoven’s Sonata in C major, and to hear Sarina play two fiendishly difficult unaccompanied pieces by Joel Friedman. Unfortunately I had to miss her Chopin Sonata with pianist Jun Cho because I had to catch the 12:05 p.m. train to Washington.

My last trip to Washington was the beginning of my historic end of days with the Emerson Quartet. Traveling with my family, I was filmed wistfully looking out the window, and working on the short speech that I would deliver at the concert. Upon arriving in Washington, Wu Han raced off to the WETA station for an interview, and I plunged into my last rehearsal, ever, with the Emerson String Quartet. It was a bit strange, I’ll admit, and at the conclusion of it, we all went our separate ways, perhaps somewhat wary of confronting the reality of the moment.

We have enjoyed an annual series at the Smithsonian for thirty-five years, which began one year before I joined the quartet. There could not have been a more fitting place for me to say goodbye to the quartet.

The backstage scene at the Natural History Museum’s Baird Auditorium was very different than usual. American Public Media came all the way from Minnesota to record the concert, bringing with them their star announcer, our long-time friend Fred Child. I have done more interviews with Fred than I can remember, but they have always been memorable, enjoyable and intelligently conceived.  It is a privilege to be welcomed to the airwaves, and now the internet, by such a virtuoso media personality.

Wu Han with Fred Child

After a brief introduction by incoming Smithsonian Resident Associates Director Frederica Adelman, and Fred Child, the Emerson took the stage for a somewhat nerve-wracking performance of Haydn’s Quartet Op. 20 No. 4. I’m not sure if my colleagues felt the same way, but I was mostly concerned with not making a mess of my last Haydn Quartet, and thoughts of the significance of the moment and the sentimentality potentially attached to it, found little room in my brain. The Haydn  began and ended without significant incident that I can remember, and we plunged into the frenetic and breathless Bartok 3rd quartet, which, I daresay, went as well or better than it ever has, at a fever pitch, and all the more so because we didn’t have the chance to rehearse a note of it.  It continues to mystify me how this works, but quite often in classical music, rehearsals often complicate matters, especially when an ensemble already knows a piece quite well.  I think we were all rather amazed.

Fredrica Adelman

During the intermission I spoke with Fred Child, who asked the inevitable “How are you feeling right about now?” question, and I responded the best I could.

And then came the moment the music world had been waiting well more than a year for: the transition from me to Paul via the immortal Schubert Quintet for string quartet with an extra cello. Before we began, I said a few words, and as I had written them out, I’ll share them right here:

I have two thank you’s and two tributes and I will be brief:

  1. Thanks to Smithsonian Institution – for providing us a home in which we grew, a unique place where we have played more concerts than any other, and likely performed every quartet that we have ever learned.
  2. And thanks to you, our audience tonight, composed of many who have come a great distance to be with us, and those of you who have been with us for many concerts, like Carl Girshman, Carl, where are you and what number Emerson concert is this for you?

And now two quick tributes: to my colleagues Phil, Gene and Larry for having had the courage and imagination to re-envision the future of the Emerson Quartet, and

to Paul Watkins, my brilliant successor, for making that exciting future possible.

Please enjoy the concert, and thank you very much.

David speaks from stage.

The performance of the Schubert was everything I had hoped for. Paul played magnificently; his energy, excitement and artistry permeated the ensemble and the entire room. The Smithsonian public welcomed him with open arms, and the warmth of the event allowed me to leave the hall with a sense that all I had helped to build there will continue with strength and conviction.

But the night was not over. Running to our various cars in a drenching rain, the Emerson Quartet and its families headed to Chevy Chase where an intimate party was given at the home of close friends Rob Josephs and Gerri Carr, co-hosted by Kathe and Edwin Williamson.

Rob and Gerri, left

The party went quite late, there were speeches, and I was presented by the quartet with a beautiful gold watch which they had purchased in the Bavarian town of Badenweiler earlier this year, on the occasion of my last concert there.  The inscription reads: “To David, the ESQ Time Meister   ‘It was the best of times’ With love and admiration Phil, Gene and Larry”

Way too late, the members of the Emerson Quartet, new and old, headed off into their new lives. For me, Phil and Wu Han, it was another early flight the next morning, to California, where we concluded Music@Menlo’s Winter Series with a trio concert. And the next day, it was off to Korea on a long flight, which thankfully has given me the time to complete this very long blog about this week – one certainly like no other.

A partial list of people who journeyed considerable distances to be with the Emerson Quartet during the transitional week:

Bill and Valerie Graham, Charlotte, VT

Marty and Sarah Flug, Aspen, CO

Jeehyun Kim, Seoul, Korea

Judith Barnard and Michael Fain, Aspen, CO

Joan Harris, Chicago, IL

Robert and Diana Hardy, St. Louis, MO

Ben Larsen, New York, NY

Harold & Jann Slapin, Basking Ridge, NJ

Irvine and Elizabeth Flinn, New York, NY

Freddie and Irwin Staller, NY

Harvey and Alisa Eisenberg, Newport Beach, CA

Robert and Shirley Kenny, Richmond, VA

Margaret and Da-Hong Seetoo, Forest Hills Gardens, NY

Matthew Zelle, New York, NY (IMG Artists)

Linda Petrikova, New York, NY  (IMG Artists)

Shirley Kirshbaum, New York, NY (Kirshbaum/Demler Associates)

Susan Demler, New York, NY (Kirshbaum/Demler Associates)

Milina Barry, New York, NY (Milina Barry PR)

… and our family members

Margaret Lim (Boston, MA)

Kim Lim (New York, NY)

Jesse, Luke, Sam Dutton and Elizabeth Lim-Dutton (Bronxville, NY)

Linda Setzer (South Orange, NJ)

Katia Setzer (Philadelphia, PA)

Wu Han (New York, NY)

Lilian Finckel (New York, NY)

Alisa Eisenberg, Margaret Seetoo, Harvey Eisenberg, Irvine Flinn

Efrem and Michael Calingaert, Eugene Drucker, Diana Hardy

Kim Lim, Efrem and Michael Calingaert, Philip Setzer

Emerson Quartet group hug

Emerson Quartet group hug.

Read Full Post »

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:

Read Full Post »

When the great luthier René Morel passed away on Wednesday, it was immediately mentioned among us in the Emerson Quartet that an era had ended. This is a comment that I am sure finds resonance in the thoughts of others who knew René and were privileged to have been under his care. But just what constituted the era of René? What did he do that was so definitive and unique that he seems to have taken it with him?

Those of us lucky to have become professional string players likely remember our first visits to violin shops. Wherever they are, big or small, famous or obscure, they possess a certain magic. There is the usual presence of a multitude of instruments, some exuding age, distinction and fabulous pedigree and value. There’s that wonderful smell of varnish and glue in the air. There’s sometimes the chance that a famous musician will just walk in right next to you. And very importantly, there is the presence of the experts and craftsmen who learned their art in time-honored ways not found in universities or online courses. What they know, you cannot just learn if you want by looking it up in a book or taking a course somewhere. It is often a lifetime of study, apprenticeship, dedication, and for the chosen few, the gaining of an artistry that goes beyond skilled craft and factual knowledge.

René Morel epitomized all that goes into the makeup of a master luthier. I first encountered him as a star-struck teenager, having been taken to the shop of Rembert Wurlitzer. I can’t even remember what I needed there – maybe it was just a string – but all the magic I spoke of took hold of me in a very powerful way. The personnel in the front – Ken Jacobs I remember well – had a cordial yet intimidating air, but when, for some reason, the people who actually did the work, like René, were summoned out of the workshop, the room stood still in their presences. Along with the magnetic and vital René was the sage-like Dario D’Attili, who was revered for his encyclopedic knowledge and ability to perform miracles of pedigree confirmation.

Some years later, as a freshman student at the Manhattan School of Music, I was thrilled beyond measure to find out that René was teaching a course in violin repair, and that I was eligible. I couldn’t believe it, and I actually still don’t understand how he found the time, energy or even the interest to share his consummate skills with a bunch of conservatory students whose skills in instrument repairs barely were enough to change a string. René, however, took the whole thing very seriously, as though he was training the descendants of Stradivari. We had to buy tools: sound post setters, clamps, rulers. We were sent down to the West Village to a paint shop to buy exotic ingredients for varnish. I had an alcohol lamp, and pretty soon I could make my little apartment smell like Wurlitzer’s. Damn! I thought, this is just out-of-sight, to good to be true. I worshipped René, hung on his every word, and got totally caught up in the incredible world he was opening to us. (I was so caught up that I actually managed to leave my cello once in the aisle of the paint shop, not discovering it was missing until I arrived home at 215th street. I have never since driven so fast down the West Side Highway).

It was not far in to the course, which took place in the late afternoon, that I learned that after class René took the subway down to the Port Authority to catch a bus to his home town in New Jersey. As I owned a car, I spied an opportunity, and offered to drive him down to 42nd street after a class in my ’54 Chevy. And that quickly became EVERY class, as I was thrilled to have him in my car, paying attention to me alone, hearing his stories and anecdotes and answering my special questions. Wow, was I lucky.

Our friendship continued through my evolution as a performer. I had learned through René’s class the importance of a good sound post adjustment, and of a good setup. It was not until then that I even realized what a major component of a string player’s life instrument adjustments could become. I began taking my cellos to René at Jacques Francais’ shop like any other customer. And, probably unlike with most of his clients, René continued to be my teacher: “What do you hear when you play?” he would ask, never allowing me to simply let him fix it, pay and go. His dedication to me as a student was permanent, and felt truly blessed.

And here I have finally arrived at the question I posed at the start of this story: what was it about René that was special, irreplaceable, and of inestimable value? There are many things.

First, of course, was his ear. He could hear like an owl. He not only heard the quality of an instrument (which he would remember as clearly as we remember peoples’ faces) but also was able to perceive the amount of effort that it took for us to produce the sound. It was from him that I first clearly understood the importance of the instrument’s mechanics, and that if it was simply out of adjustment, it was not much different than having a bad spark plug or loose steering mechanism in your car. But the miracle of his ear, and his ability to judge, was that his analyses diagnoses could be performed through scientific testing. He just knew, from his vast experience and incredible gift, what to do.

The next thing I learned from René was how tricky it is to know how your instrument actually sounds in the concert hall. Most people – instrumentalists and I have to say luthiers – give it their best guess. René knew. He really knew, and he knew it so well that those of us under the most pressure, playing the greatest instruments in the world’s greatest halls, competing with the most powerful orchestras, depended on René to make sure that when the critical performance came, our instruments were at their peak.

He proved he could do it, over and over again. No one in his lifetime – even he was totally open to explaining how he did what he did – ever came remotely close. It was not unusual to find musicians in Francais’ shop who had come all the way from Europe or the Far East just to have René move their sound post. That is truly a one-of-a-kind legacy.

A “René adjustment” is a phrase that will live on forever. Those of us who had them know exactly what one is. First, it is when your instrument sounds its best, when the sound is full of color, but also that the notes on every string have “core”, a word René used all the time and stressed the importance of. Second, it is when your instrument functions perfectly, when the strings speak immediately and the sound sparkles. Third, the instrument has to resonate, so a balance needs to be found between clarity, focus and “cushion”, another word heard often in his adjusting room. A René adjustment always extracts the maximum potential of an instrument, and also has staying power. It was rare that anyone returned for a follow-up, which usually only happened in the event of severe and unexpected weather change. René knew how to adjust for the future, and for where you were headed, and he was, in my experience, always correct.

Another aspect of the René experience that should be pointed out was his understanding of sound production technique. As discreet as René was with his customers, he clearly knew if problems were caused not by the instrument but by the player. René was blessed with the best clientele in the world; he heard and worked with the greatest players of his day, on a daily basis. His point of reference was unmatchable. He probably could have been one heck of a string teacher, but he held his opinions mostly in check, sometimes only barely alluding to the idea that perhaps your instrument was not the culprit.

The most valuable lesson I learned from this last point is that ultimately, even with the benefit of René adjustment, it would do you little good unless you yourself adjusted to the instrument, and not the other way around. This is a hard-line, no nonsense approach to playing, devoid of mystique, and with little credence given to personal intrigue or complex relationships between player and instrument. I was always the most comfortable if I thought René was adjusting my cello not for me, but for the greatest cellists he had ever heard. It was my job as a player to measure up, after he gave me the best tools to work with.

So the end result of a visit to René was coming away with an instrument that you knew would sound great, but only if you played it at the level at which it was adjusted. It was for me, and I’m sure for others, sometimes a challenge, a reach. But it was an incredible part of my education as a musician and a player, given to me by a single individual, for which I am eternally grateful.

It would not be right to omit the immense warmth of René from my list of accolades. That he treated musicians like me, from day one, with respect and friendliness was always appreciated, and was in stark contrast with others in his profession who took years to acknowledge younger, lesser-known players, as clients of worth.

I’m happy that so many had the benefit of his guidance. The whole world of music sounds better for our having had René among us. Not only his work, but our expectations of our instruments and ourselves, live on.

Read Full Post »

On Friday, May 13th, the great cellist Bernard Greenhouse passed away, at the age of 95, at his home in Wellfleet, Massachusetts.  A founding member of the Beaux Arts Trio, Greenhouse toured the world, played for millions of listeners, and left an indelible contribution to the art of cello playing.

in David’s words…

In sadness I write today in memory of Bernard Greenhouse.  But it also with great joy that I can express what his music making meant to me and to the music world.

Greenhouse was first and foremost a cellist of unsurpassed instrumental mastery.  His many chamber music recordings, plus a handful of solo recordings, reveal a technician of virtuoso level who possessed a personal and unmistakable voice.  Guided by the highest artistic integrity that he inherited from the masters of his time, Greenhouse rose to the top of his profession and remained there, inspiring students, colleagues and listeners around the world.

If there is one contribution that Bernard Greenhouse made to music that could be singled out as surpassing all others, I would venture (firmly!) to say that he was largely responsible for elevating the standard of chamber music performance to a whole new level. Indeed, his performances of the chamber repertoire’s most challenging works – the Schubert Trios, the Ravel Duo and Trio, Dvorak’s Dumky Trio, Beethoven’s Archduke Trio, etc. – remain the indisputable standard to which we all turn in search of inspiration and challenge.  His recordings of these pieces stand beside, for example: the Beethoven and Brahms piano concerti by Leon Fleisher and the Cleveland Orchestra; the Tchaikovsky violin concerto by Heifetz with Chicago; and the Shostakovich violin concerti by Oistrakh.

Because I’m a cellist I’ll take the liberty of going into details about Greenhouse’s playing.  As a warm up for this, I just listened to ten recordings online, by various ensembles, of the opening cello solo of the slow movement of Dvorak’s F minor trio.  With apologies to some friends, I can say that the Greenhouse rendition of this poignant phrase is in a class very much by itself, in every way.  First, there is the exquisite beauty of the vibrato: warm, rich, present, integrated into the sound, changing to suit the special needs of each note. There is that same attention to each pitch, the color of his sound always reflecting the emotion of the harmony under it. The intonation is so dead-on that one is never aware of it. The sound is among the most romantic you can hear, yet there are virtually no slides and it’s almost impossible to figure out his fingering.  The timing is disciplined yet alive with imagination; there is a pulse, but there is a feeling of spontaneity that responds from one millisecond to the next as the music calls for it. And finally, there is an overwhelming presence of humanity, of a person singing directly to you, of someone to whom you give yourself willingly and allow them to tell you the story of the music.

All of us – musicians and cellists especially – are fortunate to have Greenhouse’s recordings to return to for inspiration and guidance.  Through them, his legacy will last forever.  I, along with so many others, am grateful to have lived in his time and to have been enriched by his artistry.

Menahem Pressler and Bernard Greenhouse at the Hamburg International Chamber Music Competition, September 2009

Read Full Post »

This past week, David and Wu Han traveled to Chicago, IL for the 80th birthday celebration for noted arts philanthropist and enthusiast, Joan Harris. They took part in a special gala performance with several other noted artists with close connections to Joan Harris.

in David’s words…

There are very few people who have done as much for the arts in the United States as Joan Harris. This past week, we had the wonderful opportunity to be in Chicago celebrating Joan’s 80th birthday. An array of artists including Wu Han and myself were on hand to mark the occasion including the Emerson String Quartet, Renée Fleming, Pinchas Zukerman, the Escher String Quartet, the Hubbard Street Dance, and musicians from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

The program was diverse and beautifully planned by Harris Theater manager Michael Tiknis. It included a movement from the Schumann Piano Quintet with Wu Han and the Emerson, Rachmaninov songs with Renée Fleming accompanied by Wu Han and Eugene Drucker on obbligato violin, and four of Mahler’s “Rueckert” lieder in an exquisite arrangement for piano quartet and voice by the Swiss pianist Christian Favre.  Joan had specially requested the slow movement of the Rachmaninov Cello Sonata, which we were delighted to provide.

The gala event was held at the Harris Theater in Chicago’s beautiful Millennium Park–David Axelrod and Bill Kurtis were the masters of ceremony. It was a remarkable event for a remarkable woman.

Wu Han takes a bow with Renée Fleming and violinist Eugene Drucker.

At the conclusion of the concert, the entire audience rose and turned to Joan to pay tribute.  It was both fitting and moving.

The event was also a wonderful opportunity to share the stage with the stellar young Escher Quartet, which was brought to the event by Pinchas Zukerman for a collaboration in Mozart’s g minor quintet.  At one point after the concert, both Emerson and Escher shared an elevator.

Our relationship with Joan stems primarily from our participation for many years at the Aspen Music Festival and School. As the former chairwoman of the Aspen Music Festival, Joan constantly recognized quality and was extremely supportive of the Emerson String Quartet, Wu Han and myself. I distinctly remember Joan and her late husband Irving attending several recording sessions of the Beethoven Sonatas for Cello and Piano at Harris Hall in Aspen. Her constant presence and support have been an inspiration to countless artists throughout the years. This remarkable event was a fitting testament to all Joan has accomplished through her involvement in the arts, education and the humanities.

Joan Harris and the Emerson String Quartet.

It was also exciting for us to be performing at the Harris Theater in Chicago for the first time. This next season, The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center is thrilled to be beginning a three year partnership with the Harris Theater. This is fabulous opportunity for CMS to contribute to the rich musical landscape of Chicago. The first year of this partnership will see three performance throughout the course of the season. Wu Han, David Shifrin, and myself will open the series on January 27th, 2012 with a program of clarinet trios. Pianists Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Anne-Marie McDermott, André-Michel Schub, and Wu Han will present a spectacular program of works for piano four-hands on March 20, 2012. The series will conclude on May 22, 2012 with a program of romantic French chamber works featuring pianists Inon Barnatan and Juho Pohjonen; violinists Jessica Lee, Kristin Lee, and Elmar Oliveira; violist Beth Guterman; and cellist Andreas Brantelid. We look forward to this partnership and returning to Chicago very soon!

Photo credits: Dianne Brogan Photography and David Finckel

Read Full Post »


Moments before the Emerson Quartet’s appearance in Paris, at the Cité de la Musique’s 4th Biennale Quatours à Cordes, David Finckel acquired the bow of Valentin Berlinsky, the founding cellist of the Borodin Quartet, who passed away in 2007 having played in the quartet, and on this bow exclusively, for 60 years. David purchased the bow directly from pianist Ludmila Berlinskaia, daughter of the cellist, before proceeding to the stage to perform a work that Berlinsky had helped bring into the world, Shostakovich’s 9th Quartet.

in David’s words…

Cellist Valentin Berlinsky was an iconic figure in Russian music. First and foremost, his playing was of the highest order, always strong, secure and beautiful, and he brought to the Borodin Quartet the expectation of artistic excellence which gained the ensemble international popularity and respect.

Educated at Moscow Conservatory, Berlinsky began teaching immediately after graduation and never stopped. He coached countless young musicians and was dedicated to passing along the infinite knowledge he had gained through his years with the repertoire, and especially his associations with the greatest Russian composers of his time.

Berlinsky acquired this bow in 1946 in Mirecourt, France. It was made by a family of bowmakers named Morizot, whose father, Louis, had studied with Sartory. He and his five sons set up shop in a kind of factory style, each brother working on different components. The shop lasted into the 1970’s, having produced a huge volume of bows which are highly prized.

Regarding this bow, a letter to me from Ludmila reads: “…I can assure you that he performed and recorded with the Morizot during his entire career, as the mark of his thumb on the ivory can testify better than anything else.’’ Which means, among other innumerable historical events, that this bow played at the funerals of both Stalin and Prokofiev; performed all the Shostakovich Quartets for the composer in private; recorded quintets with Sviatoslav Richter; gave the first performances in the Americas, and probably world-wide, of the complete Shostakovich cycle.

In the 1990’s I met the late Mariedi Anders, one of the most distinguished artist managers of our time, who lived an active life into her 90’s and was the American manager of the Borodin, bringing them here on numerous tours. At the time, the Borodin Quartet had engaged first violinist Mikhail Koppelman, who was living in Brooklyn. I asked Mariedi how the quartet managed to rehearse with the others living in Moscow. Her response: “When you play 260 concerts a season, you don’t have to rehearse very much.” This number is approximately one hundred more than I’ve ever played, yet even in his later years, Berlinsky always looked the leanest, most agile and energetic in the quartet. I have yet to learn his secret.

An extraordinary testament to this bow’s travels is its “passport”, an essential for musicians traveling in and out of Russia with valuable instruments. The bow came to me with the passport, which as you can see has become an extraordinary work of graphic art. This passport only goes back as far as 1998, so one can get a sense of the relentless travel the quartet endured, and probably still does.

Ludmila, extraordinarily charming and equally passionate, also told me that her father did not own his cello – the state did. So this bow, as she says in her letter: “is the main physical link to my father’s career and my wish is that it will continue to live and travel like it did during the last 60 years playing music and transmitting its spirit.” I am thrilled to have the chance to fulfill her wish and look I forward to doing justice to the legacy of this marvelous bow.

Read Full Post »

in David’s words…

On my free day in Chicago, where I am for the Chicago Symphony’s Dvorak Festival, I visited the beautiful new headquarters of William Harris Lee & Co., a phenomenal source for wonderful new instruments. Bill Lee has been a good friend since we met at my quartet’s very first appearance in Chicago, a good quarter-century ago.

Bill Lee’s collection of phenomenal makers work on the premises, creating instruments of enormous quality that I have always recommended for young professionals and serious students. Waiting for me to try was the expected army of cellos, all of them beautifully set up and actually in tune!

Bill showed me the workbenches in the back where the instruments are created. Each maker has his dedicated space.

Everything needed to make an instrument is on site, including the aged wood planks from which the backs and tops are cut.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »