Led By Artists
Pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel, artistic directors of Silicon Valley’s Music@Menlo, as well as of the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society (photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco)
ONE OF THE biggest classical music success stories in the last decade in New York has been the growth of Lincoln Center’s Chamber Music Society, which has gained popular and critical acclaim with thrilling programs by great artists playing great repertoire. Led since 2004 by cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han—whose recording company, ArtistLed, was the first internet-based label, founded in 1998—the Chamber Music Society has become an epicenter of an important idea that’s gained traction in cultural circles in recent decades: that arts organizations and projects should be driven by the decisions of artists.
Finckel— a member of the Emerson Quartet from 1979 to 2013-- and Wu Han are also co-artistic directors of a highly respected and popular Music@Menlo, a chamber music festival and institute located in Silicon Valley, just south of San Francisco. Since founding the Festival in 2003, the two have run it along the same artist-driven principles—aspiring to what Finckel calls “the highest quality of performance and presentation.” Artistic aims here take precedence over all other aims, to allow the authentic heart and spirit of music-making and musical discovery to flourish. In the words of American Public Media, “Music@Menlo has rapidly become one of the world's top-tier chamber music festivals due to the quality of performance and its goal to rejuvenate the classical music experience.”
And more and more, Music@Menlo has been topping the list of must-attend events among international music lovers who enjoy travelling to great music festivals, as well as of audiences in the greater San Francisco area, which boasts an increasingly rich regional music life. (The Green Music Center’s magnificent new Weill Hall, developed by Sanford Weill and Zarin Mehta, opened in 2012, forty miles north of San Francisco, at Sonoma State University.) This year the Festival focuses on Schubert, in an immersive, three-week program starting July 17, offering a wide range of talks, master classes, prelude performances, multimedia symposia known as “Encounters,” and spirited Schubertiade concerts, to take place on and near the campus of Menlo School, the distinguished prep school that hosts Music@Menlo both physically and as an organization. Among the artists taking part this year, besides Finckel, Wu Han, and a host of younger artists participating in the Festival’s Chamber Music Institute and Young Performers Concerts, are pianist Gilbert Kalish, violinist Arnaud Sussmann, soprano Joelle Harvey, the Dover Quartet, and a host of other great artists.
We wanted to know more about Music@Menlo and were lucky enough to catch up with David Finckel in late May, in New York.
CLASSICAL TV: You’re currently co-artistic director, with Wu Han, of the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society. And of course you were a long-time member of the Emerson String Quartet. Am I right that you and Wu Han founded and began directing Music@Menlo before you arrived at the Chamber Music Society?
DAVID FINCKEL: Yes, we got going in Menlo in 2002-’03 and then we came here in 2004. But the effects of what we did here were not really felt until 2006-‘07 season, which was the first whole season to be programmed by us.
CTV: You’ve really done great things at Lincoln Center. Regarding Music@Menlo, what were your aims in creating the Festival? How are your beliefs about music making and music presentation in Menlo’s structure and programming?
DF: You can trace it back to the early ‘90s, when Wu Han and I got together. Our first attraction to each other was that we loved playing music together—and later we got married-- and even in our earliest days we were making concert recordings. And out of that we approached various recording companies, but there were always issues. We don’t want you to do this repertoire, we don’t want you to do that repertoire. You have to use our engineer, we don’t want your engineer. There were always a lot of obstacles.
Among the artists appearing this season at Music@Menlo is the Dover Quartet: "Humanity over hard perfection; the Dover Quartet is creating a gutsy and earthy sound" --Wall Street Journal
CTV: What kind of obstacles?
DF: Obstacles to our being able to ensure that the product was exactly what we wanted it to be.
CTV: Non-artistic obstacles?
DF: No, they were artistic obstacles. Like not being able to record the pieces you wanted to record—because somebody else is thinking more about “the market.” I couldn’t care less about that. If I have pieces I really want to record, I should be able to do that. I should be able to get the sound that I want, I should be involved in the editing, if I want to.... You know, right down to, I’d like the album to look a certain way, I’d like the program notes to say this or that.
And it was along in ’95 and ‘96 that we got really frustrated, because we were making these masters and we didn't have a company. Finally, Wu Han and I looked at each other and said, “Why don’t we just start our own company?” And in 1997 we did start our own recording company, called ArtistLed—meaning that artists lead the whole process. And at the time, we were the first people to do an internet-based classical label. After that, it just snowballed. Everybody started doing that.
At the same time, we were invited to participate in SummerFest La Jolla. They asked for ambitious goals, but after three summers, 1998 to 2000, we really felt that we just weren’t going to be able to accomplish what we had hoped for there, so we left. We took a year or so off, and then the thought sort of occurred to us, “What would happen if we started a festival ourselves, in the same spirit that we started our recording label?” Music@Menlo grew out of that idea. When we started, it was me and Wu Han and a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to do a pilot weekend of activity, but through that we started to form and organization and a board, and we partnered with Menlo School, our host.
The idea is that everything about the festival, from the brochure to the artists and programming, is our doing. I have the brochure in front of me: all the imagery is ours, all the language, the words that are written—well [laughs], except for things like directions and parking….
On the cover of this season's Music@Menlo brochure: artist Katia Setzer's The Linden Tree, from The Schubert Series, Winterreise (Winter Journey), 2015
CTV: The brochure does seem to resonate with the passion for music-making and music-sharing, and there’s a terrific balance between free and paid events. The whole Festival looks thought through with much heart.
DF: We’re very conscious of being a couple of New Yorkers who have come into a community, and we want to make sure that that community knows that we’re there for them and not for ourselves, and that the Festival really lives in the community, For that reason, we try to keep our doors as open as possible, for those who want to come and experience it.
CTV: Can you speak a bit about finding support for the Festival over these past years? How have audiences been growing? Funding? Corporate support?
DF: We have some support from outside the Bay area, but largely it’s right there in the community. It’s a pretty densely populated stretch, between, say, the San Francisco Airport and San Jose. That’s Silicon Valley, and there are a lot of people in there—a lot of smart people, a lot of curious people, a lot of young people, a lot of people who want to learn things. And we have plenty of people from nearby who just can’t handle the traffic going up to the Symphony, which can be pretty bad. They’re so grateful to have first-class classical music right there in the Valley.
So we took another attitude toward creating something for a classical music audience. We went out there and said, “It’s better if you learn something about the music,. It’s not a passive experience—it’s a participative experience. Classical music is something you do, not something that just happens when you sit there. If you become engaged, you get more out of it.
CTV: I see. Of course.
DF: Now, many classical music marketers will run in the opposite direction as soon as you ask them to tell their audience that they need to know something. The prevailing attitude is that you don’t have to know anything about classical music in order to love it, and I completely disagree with that. My comparison is baseball. If you loved the sport and dragged a best friend to the game, and they didn’t know one rule or anything else about it, would you really bring them there and not tell them anything about— you know, like three strikes and you’re out…? Would you really let them sit there and watch eighteen people running around a field, and try to get some excitement out of it?
So we try to inspire curiosity—even starting with the cover of our brochure, which is a little mysterious. We aim for the highest quality of performance and presentation-- that’s just what we do-- And I daresay that if you really stick to that, and if you never dumb anything down, if you expect always expect more of your audience, they will rise to the occasion. But boy, it sure happens the other way a lot.
CTV: [Laughs] I know. I think sometimes that classical music presenters simply need to learn, or be shown, new ways of doing things. And I imagine lots of those people are looking at what you and Wu Han are doing at Music@Menlo.
DF: People do look at us, and we get asked questions a lot, and my answer is always exactly the same. Never apologize for the art form, never say that it’s irrelevant, never say that it’s not learning something about.
And of course with chamber music the level of playing has to be really high—but it just doesn’t sound good, if it’s not. Somebody said to me once—I thought it was funny, but they were right—that a boring chamber music concert is much worse than a boring symphony concert…
DF: Because at a boring symphony concert you’ve still got a conductor waving their arms around and all kinds of brass and percussion instruments to look at, and things going on—at least there’s some action. If there’s just four people sitting on a stage, sawing away, and it’s dull and not good, it does more harm than good. So we have the highest standard for our artist roster.
David Finckel with young musicians participating in Music@Menlo's Koret Young Performers program
CTV: Your line-up for Menlo looks terrific. Tell me, what went into your choice of Schubert as the Festival’s focus this year?
DF: We have had composer-focused festivals in the past—around Beethoven, Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Brahms. And when I say “around” I mean, for instance, the music of Brahms and a lot of context. The Brahms festival was entitled “Through Brahms,” and was a lot about music that came before him and music that came after him that was somehow parented by his great music. This Schubert festival, though, is largely about Schubert-- and the reason I wanted to do it this way is because, first, well, his chamber music is right up there with Beethoven. And after having read I don’t know how many biographies of Schubert, the very last one that I was privileged to read was The Life of Schubert by Christopher Gibbs—who’s going to be our first “Encounter” leader. The story of Schubert’s life is so incredibly unusual—it’s a very strange and odd musician’s career for a genius of that stature. So we decided…. Remember, we’re only talking about eighteen years of a real musical career, not even two decades of time. That’s over a thousand pieces of music, and so much of essential to the repertoire, and so much of discovered only after he was dead. I mean, at the end of the nineteenth century, people were still finding pieces by Schubert. The Unfinished Symphony was not heard until the 1860s. A composer like Robert Schumann, who so loved Schubert, never even knew the Unfinished Symphony existed.
CTV: What a thought! That’s a mind-boggler.
DF: How sad is that! It is mind-boggling. So we thought, Let’s really tell the story. It was so short anyway. So we’re blasting through Schubert’s creative life, in this festival. It’s going to be a very quick three weeks, and by the time we reach the end, it’s going to be really hair-raising, in a way—because it was a life that was cut so short, and a career so unblossomed, in a way. It’s an amazing story and we wanted to tell it.
For more information about Music@Menlo, go here. Look for more Classical TV coverage of Music@Menlo when the Festival starts.
Music@Menlo is based at Menlo School, founded in 1915. Concerts take place in the school’s Martin Family Hall and Stent Family Hall, the latter “one of the world’s most exquisite chamber music spaces,” providing a listening experience in the intimate setting for which chamber music was intended. Concerts also take place at the nearby Center for Performing Arts at Menlo-Atherton, a state-of-the-art concert hall completed in 2009.
“If you expect always expect more of your audience, they will rise to the occasion…” --David Finckel
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