Chamber Music Virtuosos David Finckel and Wu Han Make Beautiful Music, Together
The musical couple seek perfect harmony onstage and off.
Photo by Doug Schneider
It’s a tale as old as time. Cellist meets piano player and falls in love when she allows him to transition slowly from an A to a G while performing Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E-Flat Major. Actually, this very specific musical incident is what sparked the romance between acclaimed pianist Wu Han and her husband, renowned cellist David Finckel. The two remember the moment well, though it happened nearly 40 years ago.
She lyrically hums both parts of the intricate chamber music piece, carefully illustrating the precise timing involved in their intertwining. “If you’re not sensitive, and come in early, it would just kill the cellist.” Finckel says. Wu’s generous instincts revealed right away that he was playing with someone quite special.
While this split-second of chamber music frisson may have served as catalyst to a remarkable union, shared experience explains the couple’s lasting bond. “We both grew up onstage,” explains Wu. “We understood each other.” Born and raised in Taiwan, she began performing at age 11. Finckel, the son of a famed jazz musician Edwin Finckel, picked up the cello at age 10 and was playing with the Philadelphia Orchestra just five years later. At 28, he joined New York’s renowned Emerson Quartet, one of the world’s most esteemed chamber music ensembles. The two met when Wu was a 20-year-old student at University of Hartford’s The Hartt School, in Connecticut.
Wu’s extraordinary talent had earned her a chance to play with the Emerson Quartet. Noting an instantaneous musical chemistry, Finckel and Wu began to practice and perform together — a partnership that soon evolved into something more. The couple wed in 1985, quickly becoming the preeminent chamber-music power couple. Appointed co-artistic directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in 2004, they also founded the annual Music@Menlo Chamber Music Festival in Silicon Valley in 2003, created a record label (ArtistLed), and continue to teach and perform across the world. Italy, Denmark, Colombia, and the Netherlands are just a few spots on their recent schedule, along with a demanding itinerary of cities across the United States.
Despite their constant globetrotting and international fame, the couple are charmingly unaffected and might even be described as downright homebodies. The longtime Manhattanite couple moved to Ardsley in late 2016 and say they are happiest when ensconced in their Mid-Century Modern in a woodsy corner of Westchester. In fact, they all but gush about the elements of suburban living many of us might take for granted.
“You have to be nice,” Wu explains, “or no one will play with you.”
When I arrive at their home, a cozy fire burns in the fireplace. Finckel says he enjoys cleaning up the yard after windstorms — plenty of fresh air and free firewood. On the house constantly needing small repairs: “I have a huge workbench and enjoy the physical activity,” he says. “I’m always crawling around under something, getting into difficult positions to fix something. I was more sedentary in the city.” Even grocery shopping is now a pleasure, he adds, after years of “schlepping the bags along sidewalks in some kind of stroller, you can just throw the bags in the car and head home.”
No small thing, as Finckel and Wu, self-proclaimed foodies (as the prominently displayed professional-grade meat slicer on the kitchen counter attests. “We’re very serious about good prosciutto,” Finckel says), take their grocery shopping quite seriously. Instead of lamenting about what they can’t find outside of the city, the two can’t rave enough about the wonders to be had in their new neighborhood. DeCicco & Sons, nearby Whole Foods, and Stew Leonard’s are favorites, as are local farmers’ markets and Central Avenue, which Finckel describes as an incredible resource. “There’s everything over there that you could ever want — including an H Mart!”
This seamless transition into the Westchester lifestyle has been, not surprisingly, a team effort. A native of rural New Jersey, Finckel was the first to feel the longing for a country house, which peaked after the couple’s daughter, Lilian, 25, moved out on her own. Their apartment seemed “too big and underutilized,” explains Finckel. Though a self-proclaimed city girl, Wu was quick to go along with the idea. In fact, she found the house online and arranged for the couple to take a look on the way home from a concert in Saratoga Springs. It was love at first sight. Finckel was so smitten, he was determined to spend the holiday season at the new house (which they did), after finalizing the sale in November.
Wu had doubts — they had never owned a house before — but was up for the challenge. The two brainstormed on a list of must-haves for this new home and came up with three: a place to sleep, a Big Green Egg barbecue grill, and a Jacuzzi (“The rest are all small details,” they say with a shrug). While the couple initially kept their Manhattan address, they kept choosing to head back to Ardsley — almost every night when they weren’t traveling. It had become home. (The apartment was sold, but the couple did recently purchase a modest pied-à-terre near Lincoln Center.)
Conversation with Wu and Finckel does seem to center around eating and sleeping — that is, when they aren’t talking about music. The two acknowledge that their demanding careers leave time for little else. Intense practice, performing, and planning programs remain the top priority in the couple’s life. It’s no coincidence, then, that their open, airy house is up to snuff acoustically. So much so that Wu and Finckel recorded an album in the high-ceilinged living room, utilizing a massive grand piano that somehow doesn’t overwhelm the space. Wu even credits Westchester for making her a better piano player: “In the city, we weren’t allowed to play before 9 a.m. or after 8 p.m. — building rules,” she says. But in the privacy of the Westchester woods, the two can practice at will. With separate rehearsal spaces on different floors, the couple can’t even hear each other play. “I can use these off-hours, which you don’t get to have in New York,” Wu explains. “The quiet just makes you think. You are very clear-minded; you feel quite peaceful.”
Finckel and Wu performing Brahms Sonata No. 1 in E Minor for Cello and Piano, Op. 38 (1862-65) at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall.
Photo by Cherylynn Tsushima for Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center
Still, a pursuit of excellence in their choice of musical path isn’t a lonely one. While the uninitiated might imagine classical musical to be fraught with artistic temperaments and divas, Wu says that the opposite is true among the chamber music community. “The people who play chamber music well are usually the kind of musicians who are supportive and fun-loving,” she points out. “You have to inspire others; it’s a happy place. Everybody’s part is equally important, and you have respect that,” adds Finckel. “Sometimes you lead, and then the roles exchange, and I think that if one understands how the music is made, then one also knows how to behave amongst colleagues.” Listening to the couple play, even a newbie can hear the give and take — sometimes the piano swells forward and cello underscores the big flourishes. Then, with perfect fluidity, the two will swap, allowing the cello to come to the fore. (Wu says the listening for the dynamic between the players in a chamber music group makes the experience especially exciting.)
Bottom line: “You have to be nice, or no one will play with you,” Wu explains. If this is the criterion, then it’s no wonder the couple is so sought-after. How could Wu’s easy and contagious laugh and Finckel’s earnest and open sharing of his artistic insights not attract recital partners and students the world over? Just don’t ask them if they listen to any other types of music. “No,” they will tell you, loudly, in unison (the only negative response to any question posed). Clearly amused by their mutual and emphatic response, Finckel goes on to explain that chamber music covers some 400 years of works, many written by the world’s greatest composers: Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Dvorak, among others. “Even professional chamber musicians like us only know the tip of the iceberg,” he insists.
Lucky for all Westchester residents, Wu and Finckel are dedicated to sharing what they have learned thus far and have been instrumental in bringing chamber music to our county. The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center stages four concerts a year at The Performing Arts Center at Purchase College. “We are so happy to be able to offer the same exact programs that we do on the Alice Tully Hall stage,” Finckel says. “It’s very gratifying. By helping to bring that music here, I feel I’m being a responsible member of the community.” A community that Finckel and Wu have come to appreciate fully in a relatively short time. “We’ve gotten to know the people in the grocery store, the gas station, the little Italian market around the corner,” Finckel says. “It’s been wonderful. Our neighbors around here are quite welcoming… really interesting, friendly people.”
Safe bet, the feeling is mutual.
Wu Han will be part of a quartet performing a program of French chamber music at Purchase College on January 25, including works by Ravel and Saint-Saens.
Gale Ritterhoff is a frequent contributor to Westchester Magazine.