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David Finckel and Wu Han: Love at the Lincoln Center

New York’s celebrated music duo shares how music has transformed their lives

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World-renowned cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han, the happily married couple and co-artistic directors of The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (CMS) and the Music@Menlo festival, have led chamber music in the United States to its pinnacle.

The two of them perform scores of concerts each season and organize over 200 events globally every year, making The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center one of the largest chamber music society in the world.

But when Wu Han arrived in New York from Taiwan in the mid-1980s as an accomplished pianist, she’d never heard of chamber music before.

A form of 18th-century Western classical music composed for a small number of instruments, chamber music was initially performed for the royal court in a palace chamber.

It’s a genre distinct from a large orchestra or symphony, often described as “the music of friends” due to its intimate nature.

The art form is, however, challenging for performers. In the absence of a conductor, musicians must rely on silent coordination with each other.

Compared to orchestral and solo performances, chamber music also has higher requirements for the artists’ skills, artistic depth, and personal character.

“If you don’t know how to play chamber music, you can never be a good musician,” Wu Han says, recalling her teacher’s words.

“It helps you develop intense musicianship, a sensitive ear, and the ability to listen to each other.”

“Chamber music also requires you to be a good person. You’ll develop kindness, sensitivity, and the ability to manage human relationships.”

In the 1980s, Wu Han entered her first chamber music contest and won. The prize was to play with the award-winning Emerson Quartet, and David Finckel was the quartet’s cellist.

The first time Finckel and Wu Han played together they felt destiny had struck a chord between them.

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Finckel and Wu Han fell in love with each other’s performance as soon as they played together. Photos by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco.

A longer wait

“In that first concert together, I didn’t even get to the bottom of the very first page before I fell in love with her playing,” Finckel says.

“There’s a big cello solo in the first piece we played—the Schumann Piano Quintet. At the end of the solo, David hung onto the final note a little longer, and I waited for him,” Wu Han says.

“It was this measure,” Finckel says, pointing to an old sheet of music with a measure circled in pencil. “I extended one beat, and she waited.”

“When David hit that high note, his blossoming was so big and rich; I just had to wait for him to finish. If you don’t wait, it’s like forcing somebody to stop breathing,” Wu Han says.

At the time, though she couldn’t speak English, the two of them connected through the magical language of music.

“The chemistry in chamber music is very hard to predict. It’s like finding the right spouse—you know right away that this is somebody you want to spend the rest of your life with, or that this is somebody you’d like to make music with,” Wu Han says.

“It’s the most incredible sensation. It’s the same feeling as falling in love. You know you want to do more, and you know you sound magnificent together.”

After that first performance, Finckel and Wu Han began playing regularly, strengthening that initial bond through their love of chamber music.

Due to the couple’s effortless synchronicity on stage, concert patrons would sometimes tell them backstage, “You two must be married,” Wu Han says.

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Celebrated chamber music power duo, David Finckel and Wu Han. Photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco.

A special synergy

Finckel and Wu Han’s strong link to each other was coupled with the fact that their instruments—the cello and piano—have their own special synergy.

The figurative waltz the cello and piano perform—weaving in and out of the different voices in a piece of music—is also a reflection of the human connection musicians share.

“Cellists are the nicest people,” Wu Han says, smiling at her husband. “A lot of great composers have great cellist friends. Isn’t that interesting?”

“Many of them were pianists, like Beethoven, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, and Mendelssohn, and they wrote beautiful sonatas for their cellist friends.”

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Chamber music requires superior musicianship and sensitivity since the artists don’t have the benefit of a conductor. © 2022 David Finckel & Wu Han

The boundless power of music

Finckel and Wu Han have devoted their lives to studying, mastering, performing, and promoting chamber music.

In recognition of their inspirational work, the couple has earned many accolades, including the Musical America’s Musician of the Year award, one of the highest honours in the music industry.

In addition to serving as artistic directors of The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York, Finckel and Wu Han are also co-founders and co-artistic directors of the Music@Menlo Chamber Music Festival and Institute, one of the most influential summer chamber festivals in the United States.

“In my eyes, classical music is a treasure of human civilization,” Wu Han says. “It’s beautiful to consume and gives you a sense of calm, enjoyment, respect—all essential qualities for civilized citizens.”

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Finckel connected to the cello’s beauty and resonance from the first moment he held one. Photos by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco.

The couple believes that, in this stressful world, people need the beauty and hope that classical music brings.

“Music contains something beyond the superficial human world; it’s beyond the expression of words,” Wu Han says.

Chopin’s Cello Sonata in G Minor is the first piece Finckel and Wu Han learned together. Performing it is still an extraordinary experience for the couple.

“You can hear sobbing in the room,” Wu Han says. “It changes you spiritually. You understand the power of music and how it can go straight into your soul.”

“It’s a transmission of great art through the air, through sound waves to people. The act of performing music is synonymous with the act of giving,” Finckel says.

The couple says the benefits of chamber music are not just for the listeners; the music allows, or even requires, performers to cultivate their inner character in tandem with their skills.

Since becoming co-artistic directors of CMS, Finckel and Wu Han have expanded the Society’s digital reach and educational programs by bringing chamber music to young audiences throughout North America and the Far East.

“What’s great about music is that, if you work really hard at it, it can be your dearest friend. It will always give back to you,” Wu Han says.

In addition to regular practice, life experiences, such as struggles and victories, will help a musician understand music at more profound levels. It’s a journey that gets deeper and deeper.

“Once you put in that work and you realize you can actually make something magnificent happen, it’s incredibly magical,” Wu Han says.

This story is from Magnifissance Issue 115

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