7 Jul 2010
David Finckel and Wu Han Blog

In front of a packed house at Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall, the Emerson Quartet finished up a whirlwind week of concerts that closed the quartet’s 34th season.  Read on about performances in Aspen, Chicago, Portland, Ottawa and Lenox, MA.

in David’s words…

Well, we made it through another one.  That’s always my thought on the last night of any season with the quartet.  The quartet seasons are very long, beginning often at the end of August and continuing through the middle of July.  It has been a landmark season for us in which we returned for the first time in many years to Asia, played series of concerts at Lincoln Center and at the South Bank Center in London, won our ninth Grammy for the Janacek/Martinu recording, and issued a three-CD set of Dvorak.  And that’s not all.


Arriving in Aspen is always like coming home for me and the quartet.  Invited here regularly since the early 1980′s, we have rarely missed a summer.  Aspen combines the most beautiful environment with the highest artistic expectations: you will be tempted to hike and swim and play tennis, but you know that in the evening you will find any number of great musicians in the audience, plus students eager to learn from both your strengths and mistakes.

Larry with students backstage at the Music Tent

Phil with concert sponsor Martin Flug

The Aspen Music Festival and School was the first of two festivals we visited this week that is functioning without a music director; conductor David Zinman left this spring amidst a conflict that has plagued the institution on an administrative level for the last couple of seasons. But the music still resounds, the audiences are as excited as ever, a great festival is lined up, and artistic life goes on. We hope our performance (this time after a season’s absence) contributed to increasing harmony and cooperation in a place that means a great deal to us and upon which so many depend for education and renewal.

The quartet on stage at the Music Tent

What on earth are we doing? (Concert and backstage photos courtesy of Tom van Straaten).


Ravinia Park, in a suburb of Chicago, has been the summer home of the Chicago Symphony since 1904. Nestled in a quiet neighborhood, and within walking (and hearing) distance of the commuter train from the city, the park draws thousands of devoted listeners who either take in an orchestra concert in the shell, hear a chamber concert from air-conditioned (thank God!) Martin Theater, or perhaps go to a student performance at the renowned Steans Institute.  There is also lawn seating for Martin Hall, and our concerts are piped out via a sound system to large numbers who apparently applaud at the conclusion of a work, as though they were in the hall.

The Ravinia Festival today prides itself on a diversity of entertainment offerings.  Our concert, for example, was sandwiched in between appearances by John Hiatt and the Combo, and Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion.  Next week, symphony performances of Mozart and Bernstein/Copland frame appearances by the Ko-Thi Dance Company and something called Cheap Trick and Squeeze.

For this concert we were joined by our long-time colleague, clarinetist David Shifrin, with whom we’ve performed countless times and recorded both the Mozart and Brahms quintets. It is always a joy to play with David, in my opinion the greatest artist on his instrument today.  As many times as I have heard the Mozart, the work in his hands is always fresh, different, inspired.  What a joy to play such a program, finishing with this masterpiece preceded by the “Dissonant” quartet and four Bach fugues in Mozart’s transcription.

Our only unsolved challenge of the evening proved to be finding dinner, in the absence of a reception (unusual), and room service (which stopped at 10pm, can you believe it?).


Making our way via a four-hour flight to Portland, Oregon, we descended into one of the most distinguished and best-run festivals in the world: Chamber Music Northwest, this year celebrating its 40th season.  Clarinetist David Shifrin not only marks his 30th season as Artistic Director, but his three decades working with dynamo executive director Linda Magee, who runs the world’s tightest artistic ship while leaving plenty of room for spontaneity and innovation.

Chamber Music Northwest has developed an audience not only devoted to music but to musicians as well. Having fostered a family atmosphere, the festival is grounded by musicians who have returned for years, their tenures proudly noted at the conclusion of their program bios: Ani Kavafian, 17th season; Ida Kavafian, 28th season; Anne-Marie McDermott, 17th season; Paul Neubauer, 27th season.  But there are many new-comers as well, and this year the festival inaugurates its Protege Project, in which highly accomplished young musicians join the festival for a number of activities, including performances on the main stages. Having established the CMS Two program at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center during his tenure as Artistic Director, it is not a surprise that David has created a similar project for CMNW that is aligned with his vision of the future of chamber music resting in the hands of the young.

It was extremely gratifying to be invited by David to join in this landmark season for CMNW. David played exquisitely for his devoted  audience, and was rewarded with a well-deserved, resounding ovation. A night to remember.

Sunday most of the day was eaten up travelling back to East Coast, where we were greeted with temperatures in the unbearable range and above.


After a very long day and short night in New York I met the quartet in Ottawa for an exciting concert in which we would be joined by pianist Menahem Pressler. Truly a legend in his own time, Menaham has earned the love of audiences around the globe, and the admiration of the world’s most distinguished musicians. He has been, from my quartet’s earliest beginnings, one of its most loyal advocates, and we have looked up to him in many ways over our entire career.

Coloring the day with sadness, however, was the news we received from Larry Dutton that his mother Ruth had passed away the day before. As she had not been able to come to concerts for some time, we had already come to miss her always-positive, optimistic and good-humored nature, an attitude that she passed to her son which has helped sustain the spirit of the Emerson Quartet throughout its history. She will be long and fondly remembered.

Any day we play with Menahem is a special one, but an unexpected encounter made Monday all the more memorable. Ascending to my room upon check-in, I was joined in the elevator by a gentleman who looked at me and my cello in a knowing way and remarked: “I believe we are on the same gig today.” I asked: “Really, what do you play?” And he said: “I’m not playing, I’m giving lectures.  My name is Norman Lebrecht.”

Larry, Phil and Gene with Norman Lebrecht

I felt mighty stupid for not having recognized one of the world’s most leading arts commentators and prolific authors. Learning that he was about to speak around the corner on the state of classical music, I naturally dropped everything and went to hear him.

About two hundred people showed up to hear Lebrecht, who is a famously outspoken expert on the history and current affairs of the music industry, analyze the state of the classical music “business”.  His talk was rich in fact, keen in perspective, and was backed what was easily perceivable as a deep love of the art and concern for the future.

Divided into two parts, his lecture focused first on five “pillars” of financial support that have either cracked or crumbled in the last two decades: the recording industry, classical broadcasting and media opportunities, ticket revenues, government funding and private funding. While focusing principally on categories of commerce, Lebrecht readily acknowledged the need for better education, providing enlightening facts and figures on music and academic performance in a variety of countries.  It was a stimulating talk that got me thinking hard, surely along with everyone else (I may do a dedicated blog post on this soon).

Before the concert I was visited by bow maker Bernard Walke, whose magnificent bow I had been using for more than a decade until I broke it during the Schubert Trio concert in Richmond this past February. Bernard brought a half dozen bows for me to try, all of them wonderful. His style of bow is very much to my liking: strong. I easily played half the concert with one of them, and at my invitation he is sending some to Music@Menlo so that I may introduce our deserving young cellists to his fine work.

The concert went off without a hitch, although Menahem seemed unusually stressed about all his obligations. In addition to our concert he had agreed to perform a “Pressler and Friends” concert the next afternoon at 2pm with a group of musicians he had never met. Under these circumstances one has to make “friends” very quickly, but Menahem, being as demanding on himself and colleagues as he is, put himself into it completely, rehearsing seven hours straight the day before we arrived on a completely different program. With his tank obviously near empty, he nevertheless played beautifully, bringing the audience to its feet instantly at the conclusion of the Dvorak Quintet, and further rewarding them with the Brahms Quintet slow movement as an encore.

Finding dinner proved an enormous challenge as nothing was arranged for us again, like Ravinia. Although Menahem’s page turner called ahead, the place she sent us to turned out to be closed, and we wound up at an un-airconditioned, noisy place where we dined on dried-up burgers and soggy French fries. But the meal mattered not: what was really extraordinary was to listen to Norman Lebrecht – whom we had invited to join us – ask Menahem questioned about his teachers and mentors. Lebrecht: “Did you know anyone who knew Brahms?”  Pressler: “But of course!” And the conversation went on like that into the wee hours and would have continued had I not reminded Menahem of his impending concert the next day. If I had only had a tape recorder! Yet Lebrecht (who contributed amazing stories and historical perspectives) clearly has an encyclopedic memory, and hopefully this conversation will wind up on one of his books or on his blog. This encounter, over disgusting food in a very uncomfortable place, was one of the high points of my season, the four of us listening in rapt silence.


Getting into my car at Newark Airport at 1pm, the first thing I did was to check the outside temparature reading: 104 degrees. I’m sure that my colleagues, travelling separately, were wondering the same thing: how are we going to play a concert which is open to the outdoors in such heat?  Will our instruments simply fall apart?  Not long after I left the airport, the outside reading rose briefly to 106 degrees. I stopped not so much for the iced coffee as to feel what that heat was really like. Incredibly, it felt like when I was standing in the hottest direct sun you have ever felt, like recently on the Acropolis in Athens – except here I was in the shade.

As I pulled into Tanglewood five hours later the temperature read 99 degrees.  Not too reassuring. But the Ozawa Hall is incredibly designed: somehow they managed to install air conditioning in the vast space that can be felt by the performers, and that was to save the concert. Undaunted, the loyal Tanglewood audience showed up in droves, the inside completely full and the lawn outside packed with listeners as far as we could see.

Backstage had a very familiar feel of all of us looking ahead to the next musical chapters of our lives: Phil practicing Vivaldi Four Seasons for Chamber Music Northwest and Music@Menlo; Gene noodling on Beethoven’s Ghost Trio for a concert in Chatham, New York; me going over the tricky spots in the Beethoven sonata cycle for Aspen next week; and from Larry unfortunately no music but the sound of him on the phone, ceaselessly and devotedly making arrangements to take care of his mother’s memorial and his family’s many obligations. In spite of all Larry went through in the last few days, he delivered incredible playing and spirit in the concerts and rehearsals.  I’m not sure how he did it, and I found it very inspiring.

The crowd could not have been more appreciative. Joining us again was David Shifrin who delivered another extraordinary performance of the Mozart Quintet, and a sublime half-completed movement by Mozart of another quintet (for the encore) that ends shockingly in mid-phrase. It was an odd way to end an entire season, no doubt! It certainly left a “to be continued” feeling in the air.

Like Aspen, like Menlo or any festival like it, the enthusiasm is fueled by the energy and vocal appreciation of large numbers of students. I was attacked by a marvelous bunch of them after the concert who promised to send me a group photo which you will see here as soon as they send it (UPDATE: it’s now there). In their midst I found myself wishing that Norman Lebrecht had been with me to perhaps be heartened by their energy and optimism. If classical music’s future is in hands like theirs, there is definitely light on the horizon.

<February 2020>

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Brahms: Quintet for Clarinet and Strings in B minor, Op. 115
Bartók: Contrasts for Violin, Clarinet and Piano, Sz 111
Bernstein: Sonata for Clarinet and Piano
Mozart: Quintet for Clarinet and Strings in A major, K 581
Mozart: Serenade for Winds no 11 in E flat major, K 375
Seiber: Serenade for 2 Clarinets, 2 Bassoons and 2 Horns
Music for Viola and Gypsy Band
Bolcom: Afternoon Cakewalk
Brahms: Sonata for Clarinet and Piano no 1 in F minor, Op. 120 no 1
Brahms: Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano in A minor, Op. 114
Piazzolla: La muerte del Angel
Debussy: Première Rhapsodie for Clarinet and Piano
Poulenc: Sonata for Clarinet and Piano in B-flat major, FP 184
Martinu: Sonatina for Clarinet and Piano, H 356
Hindemith: Sonata for Clarinet and Piano
Lutoslawski: Dance Preludes (5) for Clarinet and Piano
Debussy: Two pieces from Children's Corner arr. for clarinet and piano by David Schiff
Debussy: Première Rhapsodie for Clarinet and Piano
Mozart: Parto, ma tu ben mio from La Clemenza di Tito
Dvorak: Serenade for Winds in D minor, Op. 44
Mozart: Serenade for Winds no 10 in B flat major, K 361 (370a) "Gran Partita"
Weber: Quintet for Clarinet and Strings in B flat major, J 182/Op. 34
Weber: Variations (7) for Clarinet and Piano from "Silvana," J 128/Op 33
Weber: Grand Duo concertante for Clarinet and Piano in E flat major, J 204/Op. 48
Schubert: Der Hirt auf dem Felsen, D 965/Op. 129 (The Shepherd on the Rock)
Dvorak: Serenade for Winds in D minor, Op. 44
Strauss: Duet-Concertino for Clarinet, Bassoon, Strings and Harp, AV 147
Piazzolla: Oblivion
Rogerson: Constellations
Bunch: Ralph's Old Records for Flute, Clarinet, Viola, Cello, and PIano
Schickele: Serenade for Three
Schickele: Clarinet Quintet "Spring Ahead"
Shulman: Rendezvous
Etler: Concerto for Clarinet and Chamber Ensemble
Mozart: Serenade for Winds in E-flat Major, K. 375
Beethoven: Quintet for Piano, Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon and Horn in E flat major, Op. 16
Bruch: Eight Pieces for viola, clarinet, and piano, Op. 83
Davidovsky: Septet for Piano, Flute, Clarinet, Violin, Viola, Cello and Bass
Beethoven: Septet in E flat major, Op. 20
Jalbert: Street Antiphons
Brahms: Quintet for Clarinet and Strings in B minor, Op. 115
Mozart: Quintet for Clarinet and Strings in A major, K 581
Stravinsky: L'histoire du soldat