David Finckel and Wu Han: Love at the Lincoln Center
New York’s celebrated music duo shares how music has transformed their lives
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.
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.
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.”
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.