Couple make beautiful music

Pianist, cellist help mark hall's fifth season

September 15, 2005|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Funny, but they don't look maniacal.

That's what they are, though, and proud of it.

After 20 years of marriage and more than two decades as artistic collaborators, cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han have become classical music's power couple.

Besides their onstage life - they kick off the classical portion of the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center's fifth anniversary season tomorrow night - Finc- kel and Wu Han serve as artistic directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York and the much-admired Music@Menlo chamber music festival they founded in California's Silicon Valley.

They also run their own record company, which is exactly what the corporate title proclaims: ArtistLed. And, in their spare time, they squeeze in plenty of teaching and mentoring for young musicians.

How do they do it?

"We have great help," Wu Han, 46, says, "from many incredibly intelligent persons who are passionate and devoted to the mission. There's a whole team of maniacal believers."

"When Wu Han mentions the mission," Finckel, 53, adds, "it's not about making money or being famous. We just want to promote this art we both care so deeply about."

The art brought the two together. Finckel, a member of the top-notch Emerson String Quartet, first heard the Taiwan-born Wu Han in 1982 when she was a student who won a competition that enabled her to play piano with the ensemble.

It was love at first sound.

"Wu Han's piano-playing is what attracted me to her," says Finckel. "She hardly spoke any English back then, so our first real communication was through music. We really were speaking the same language. And this has held over the years."

The New York-based couple married in 1985.

Although Finckel maintains a busy enough schedule with the Emerson Quartet, he and Wu Han concertize regularly, earning high praise for the technical elan and expressive richness of their playing. That quality should be easily evident in tomorrow's concert of Bach, Beethoven, Schumann, Debussy and Britten.

Deciding matters of interpretation - phrasing, tempo and the like - does not appear to put any strains on the relationship. "For us, it's never hard," Wu Han says. "We live together and we grow together. You need a sense of trust in a partnership like this. If I make a mistake, I trust David to tell me."

A trusting partnership no doubt also accounts for the success of ArtistLed, founded in 1997 and billed as the Internet's first classical recording label ( "We don't run into many disagreements," Finckel says of the record business. "It's actually quite easy," Wu Han says, but she also laughs as she says it.

The couple's eighth CD - an all-Brahms collection - is due out any day. The release was postponed when an assistant noticed a slight grammatical error in the liner notes. "David and I asked each other, Should we spend the money to change it, causing a delay, or just go forward?'" Wu Han says.

There was only one possible answer.

"Do it right, even though we could save money by not correcting the mistake. The quality is the most important thing," the pianist says.

Attention to musical detail is just as keen in an ArtistLed product. "The CDs are like our children," Finckel says. "It even takes nine months, at least, to finish them. And we don't disown any of them. They are never deleted from the catalog."

The power to keep their own recordings in print as long as they like is just one benefit of having their own record label.

"We record what we want when we want," Finckel says. "We produce the booklet and the graphics. We own the rights to the recordings. All of this is completely rewarding. We have removed many of the frustrations that face many classical musicians. Recordings are a legacy. They're very important to me and to Wu Han."

Although sold through the Web, the CDs are not currently downloadable. "We pride ourselves on real audiophile quality," Finckel says, "so we won't do downloading until there's a system that can replicate the same level of quality."

"It's not yet there," says Wu Han.

Whether in the recording studio or concert hall, the couple holds to the same principles.

"The first thing is that you have to have faith in this art form, what it can do to your life and soul," Wu Han says. "I believe people will stick with you if you give them the best quality. You cannot short-change the art itself. And you can't dumb-down to an audience. I don't feel you can fool them a bit by dressing up sexy or something."

She lets out another laugh.

"I know it sounds all very idealistic, but it works," she adds. "If people learn to trust you, they will continue to show up."

Ensuring that audiences continue to show up for their music - for classical music, period - is very much a goal for these artists. So is making the experience meaningful for listeners.

"Have you seen that ad on TV late at night," Finckel says, "the one about `The world's most relaxing classical music'? What are they talking about? If you sell music like that, you've lied to people.

"We're very big on truth in advertising. Classical music is not a casual, kick-back-and-chill-out kind of thing. Yes, some of it is relaxing, but it's also challenging, exciting and stimulating - and sometimes fraught with all the tensions of real life. It's not just entertainment."

As Wu Han puts it, "We're pretty maniacal about concert-presenting."


Who: David Finckel and Wu Han

Where: Clarice Smith Center, University of Maryland, University Boulevard and Stadium Drive, College Park

When: 8 p.m. tomorrow

Tickets: $35

Call: 301-405-2787

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