David Finckel: The 21st Century Renaissance Man
Cellist, educator, festival programmer, and entrepreneur is a man with a plan
Long a fixture on the international chamber-music scene, Finckel’s presence and influence seem only to grow. He and his wife, pianist Wu Han, have been co-artistic directors of Music@Menlo, which acts as both a concert series and training ground for young chamber players, since its founding in 2003. The couple also heads a boutique record label, ArtistLed, and serve as co-artistic directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, a position they have held since 2004. In that time, Finckel and Wu Han have vastly expanded the activities of the organization and recently signed on to hold the job for another five years.
“David is at the very top of the chamber-music world,” says cellist Fred Sherry, a member and former artistic director of the Chamber Music Society. As a musician, performer, and administrator, “David works with astounding ease. He’s one who is embraced by the many corners of the music world.”
Just five hours before the Music@Menlo Winter Series concert, Finckel, fresh off the plane from San Diego, where the Emersons had played the previous evening, appears in a suburban San Francisco hotel lobby for an interview. The 59-year-old cellist’s low-key dress of dark slacks and black zip-up fleece emblazoned with the Music@Menlo logo belies the excitement and anticipation he was apparently feeling. “Today is a landmark day,” he beams. “I can’t wait to see the faces today.
“There’s a lot of excitement.”
Read the complete Music@Menlo program.
The summer programs remain the core of Music@Menlo, which occurs over three weeks at Menlo School in Atherton, California, and presents a slew of concerts and educational programs. This year, the festival runs July 22 through August 13. Last summer, for instance, the festival presented old standbys such as Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, but also music by more recent works by Crumb, Schoenberg, and Britten. And a lecture series offered up talks on such topics as “Under the Influence: Cultural Collage in Paris during the Early 20th Century.”
Music@Menlo also runs training programs for college-age students and younger teens. The festival “is a total immersion,” Finckel says. “Many people give up their lives and spend all day on the Menlo campus at master classes and discussions and going to coachings and concerts.”
The festival had long toyed with the idea of winter concerts, but didn’t proceed until Finckel felt the festival had both the financial support and mental bandwidth for the undertaking. “They should be concerts with the same integrity and values and priorities as the summer,” he says. Following the opening concert with the Emersons, the winter series presented a January concert of music for two pianos performed by Wu Han, Alessio Bax, and Anne-Marie McDermott, and a final May concert of piano quartets.
“There’s the idea of keeping the festival community engaged,” Finckel says. “The winter concerts don’t compete with the summer, but they provide concerts of the same quality.”
As hands-on artistic directors, Finckel and Wu Han are “super-careful and conscious of all the different values of this festival, from the performances to the programming and contextual clarity to audience care and artist care,” he says. “We have our hands in every aspect of the production.”
Like Music@Menlo, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, one of the dozen constituents at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, organizes concerts and events, but on a vastly larger scale. Finckel’s artistic co-directorship there is the closest position to a conventional job that he has. In New York, “I split my days between working on the instrument and then, like a businessperson, I go to the office and sit there all afternoon with the team mapping out the future,” Finckel says.
Before departing for his October concerts on the West Coast, for instance, Finckel planned out the Society’s December performances of the Brandenburg Concertos. “Each year we bring in different artists and we rotate players and who plays what,” he says. “Wu Han and I are involved in every placement of every single player. Our job is to know them as people and as musicians and to know how they work together.”
During Finckel’s tenure, the society’s educational initiatives have expanded, most notably in Taiwan and South Korea, where in 2009 it launched Chamber Music Immersions, a series of weeklong coaching workshops for students. After an initial late-2009 course, the project in Taiwan went on hold due to political changes that affected funding, Finckel says. But the initiative continues in South Korea, where the electronics and chemical conglomerate LG Corp. underwrites a year-round music school that hosts the workshops. So far, a small crew of society members has taught in South Korea twice. Finckel himself coached at the inaugural session in the summer of 2009 and expects to teach again in this summer.
Indeed, almost all of Finckel’s pedagogical work occurs in short-term or, as he notes, “one-shot” occasions such as coachings and master classes for chamber groups. Yet he still has an urge to teach cellists the art of playing the instrument. With no time to hold down a conventional private-teaching gig, Finckel turns to technology to produce Cello Talks, his series of web videos about cello technique. Recorded on the fly largely in hotel rooms, the videos, some just a couple of minutes long, show Finckel explaining topics ranging from controlling vibrato width and playing spiccato to using rosin. While many of the topics are clearly aimed at advanced students, some of the material is elementary by intent. In one video, entitled “Bow Geography,” Finckel points to his bow and explains, “The frog is the heavy end.”
Finckel says the back-to-basics approach is necessary. Much to his dismay, he says, even some highly accomplished students lack certain basic knowledge about cello technique.
Finckel’s efforts in education reflect his faith in the up-and-coming generation’s contributions to chamber music. While his own quartet built its name on the bread-and-butter classic repertoire, emerging groups needn’t feel so limited. “These days, young musicians are born into such a variety of music and styles,” he says. “They’re able to cross between genres much more than my generation because they’re born into it. Almost all the young musicians I know are much more at ease with contemporary music than I’ve ever been.”
Not that Finckel feels insecure about his comfort level with modern music or anything else. Toward the end of our interview, he realizes he’s running late for a lunch meeting prior to the afternoon’s concert at Music@Menlo. Accustomed to juggling his many roles, Finckel doesn’t get rattled. “I’m so happy doing all these things I do,” he says. “I have such a fantastic existence."