David Finckel: The Chamber Music Maestro

Cellist David Finckel, in concert and conversation with Jim Cotter.

About David Finckel

David Finckel is an American cellist and influential figure in the classical music world. The cellist for the Emerson String Quartet from 1979 to 2013, Finckel is currently the co-artistic director of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York, co-founder of the independent record label ArtistLed, co-artistic director and founder of Music@Menlo in Silicon Valley, co-artistic director of Chamber Music Today in Seoul, Korea, producer of Cello Talks, professor of cello at the Juilliard School, and visiting professor of music at Stony Brook University.

(from Wikipedia)

Connect with David Finckel


Coming up, the celebrated American cellist, David Finckel comes from a deeply musical family, in which the cello was preeminent. His uncle and cousins also played the instrument, but it was his father, the prominent jazz musician Edwin Finckel, who most encouraged his son to pursue classical music, and he did with a vengeance. The young Finckel dedicated himself to his instrument, and when in his teens he began to outgrow his teachers, he set about trying to convince Mstislav Rostropovich, one of the greatest cellists of his or any time, to become his mentor.

In his late 20's, Finckel joined the Emerson Quartet, which would become one of the most successful American string quartets of the late 20th and earlier 21st century. It was in the early days of the quartet that he met pianist Wu Han, his partner in life and in music. Today, they are co-artistic directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York City, co-founders of the independent record label Artist Led, and co-artistic directors and founders of two annual Chamber Music Festivals: Music at Menlo in Silicon Valley, and Chamber Music Today, in Seoul, South Korea.All of this in the service of music.

AJC: So please welcome Wu Han and David Finckel.

AJC: You don't come from a classical music background. By all rights, you should be playing jazz I think, if your story's to be told.

David Finckel: Well, I could say that I'm not from a classical background because my father was initially a jazz musician, but he really got turned onto music from listening to classical. It's just that he had no classical or formal training when he was young, so he sort of slid into the jazz idiom, because it didn't require reading music. It only required playing by ear. Plus, he lived during one of the great eras of jazz, the big band era, and he got totally turned on by that, and sucked into it, and went to classical later.

AJC: He really wanted you to be a classical musician because he didn't read music until later in life, right?

Finckel: That always bothered him. I think like many parents, you want to give your kids something that maybe you didn't have when you were younger, whether it was money, or no money, or a challenge, or ease of life, and when he struggled, later on, to become a classical music teacher, with the basics, he, when I came along, he said, "No, David is going to be a jazz musician. He's gonna learn music the proper way."

AJC: You all eventually ended up—you attending a school in New Jersey, your mother being an administrator there, and your father being a music teacher, and you all get in the car every morning, and go to school together, and go to different parts of this college, and then all come home in the evening. That's where you found the cello?

Finckel: Yeah exactly. I remember making the decision to try to play the cello as an orchestral instrument because I had studied the piano previously, and my parents said, “Why don't you play the cello like your uncle George, and your cousin Mike, your cousin Chris?” And, I said, “Great, I'll try it.” And you know, when you don't even know how to play the cello at all, you can still make a decent sound. Even if you play with the wrong hand, you know. That's not bad. It's better than when you start a violin, that's really, really hard. So right away, you know ... And the thing, it's beautiful. Look at it, it's just like a little person, very shapely, and you put it between your legs, and you don't sit like this, and it feels great, and you… You sink into it. It's like hitting a tennis ball in the sweet spot. I loved it. It was great.

AJC: So the next piece, a Chopin sonata. Let's hear that. When did you first hear of, or hear Mr. Rostropovich?

Finckel: I first heard the name Rostropovich from my uncle. My late uncle George was a cellist. Taught at Bennington College. When I first heard Rostropovich's recording, Saint-Saens Concerto, and the Concerto in C Minor by Myaskovsky, who was a contemporary of Prokofiev, I heard that sound, and I said to myself, that's the way not only the cello should sound, but that's the way I wanna sound. And I just got so excited by that, that it just fueled my work, my practicing, my desire to play all the repertoire that I heard him play, and of course I attempted all these difficult pieces way before I was actually ready to play them, but I was so on fire from wanting to play like that, to sound like that, that I couldn't hold myself back. And so my teacher sort of just said, "Well, doesn't sound very good yet, but let him go ahead." And so that's what I did.

AJC: When did you start stalking Rostropovich?

Finckel: I stalked him from probably about the age of 13. It was the first opportunity that I had to hear him, because those days, the Soviet artists, they didn't get let out on a regular basis, so it was a big deal. And so, yes, we heard that he was coming. My parents got me tickets to hear him play the Dvorak Concerto in Carnegie Hall, and I went. And we were sitting way, way, way up in the nosebleed section, but I'll never forget seeing him walk out on stage for the first time, and rip through the Dvorak. The experience was indicative of what he was doing to audiences at that point. There is hardly a classical performer today that elicits that kind of response from an audience that Rostropovich did. It was not only just a miracle of music making, it was a miracle of cello playing. Nobody thought that the cello could sound anything like he made it sound. Projecting, singing, sustaining. It was not only just a great concert, a great musical experience, but there was the feeling that you were seeing a kind of a phenomenon. An inexplicable talent, a musician at work. And the fire caught me from that very night. And that very night is the first night that I met him, because my mother—

AJC: How?

Finckel: My mother said, "Why don't we go backstage, like your father and I used to do?" And I said, "No, I'm too afraid." I was very shy, I wouldn't go. And she said, "We'll just stand in the hallway, and watch him go to his car." And there was a huge line of people to go upstairs to see him, huge crush of people going up. I thought, “This is gonna take forever.” She said, "We'll just wait here." And we were waiting there very quietly, and all of the sudden a door ... There was nobody in the corridor. A door right next to us opened, and he came blasting out. And he had his cello, he had a big fur hat on, and a fur coat, a big pile of music in one hand, the cello in the other, and he went around us like this, and the two of us flattened against the wall. And he looked and he saw me and my mom standing there, and he put down his cello, he put the music on top of the cello, he took off his hat, and he came over and extended his hand, and said, "Thank you for coming to my concert." Could you believe that? He had all of those people about to catch him, but yet he couldn't pass this kid and his mom, waiting to see him. And then he ran and picked up his stuff, and left. And I thought, now that's the coolest guy I ever saw. So it gave me the courage to not only attend his concerts but to go backstage afterward and say hi. And after a while, he started to notice. He said, "Weren't you in Boston yesterday," or, "weren't you in Washington? What's your name?" And then he got to know my name, and eventually he got to know that I played the cello.

AJC: Talk us through the years between you and Rostropovich. You've become his first American student through this devilish pursuit of the man.

Finckel: I guess I was because I followed him a lot of places, I did a lot of stalking in those days, and it was astounding to me that I didn't see any other young cellists, looking for lessons, but there was nobody. They'd be my best friends now if they had been around, but they weren't there. It was only me, for nine or 10 years at least, that I was able to do that. And then after I got in my quartet, I was just ... I was too old, you know. I stopped ... He should have kicked me out of the nest probably earlier, but then things did very, very happily reunite when we managed to record the Schubert Cello Quintet together. That was, of course, a peak experience.

AJC: You talk about your quartet. We're talking of course about the Emerson Quartet. You were a member of the group for 30 years?

Finckel: For 34 seasons, yes.

AJC: Wow.

Finckel: It's a lot of concerts. We don't have enough time to talk through that—

AJC: It's a lot of concerts.

Finckel: In my opinion, the Emerson Quartet is possibly the most fortunate quartet ever to exist in the first place, because for so many, all these years, I enjoyed such fantastic friendship with my three colleagues, and had the greatest respect for them. These were guys who tried 110% every single concert, no matter how small the town was, or how insignificant it was. It was inspiring to be with them. I learned so much from them, and of course from the repertoire. We came into existence at the beginning of the digital age, so 81, 83, somewhere around there, we started to have digital recordings, and very fortunately for us, the Deutsche Grammophon recording company needed to make ... All recording companies were looking to rerecord all their repertoire in digital. And we had just gotten enough of a European career going, and we had an advocate in the company who pushed us through that door, and we got the exclusive contract with DG in 87. So we had the opportunity to record so much music, and then that fueled the career, and then the recordings were phenomenally successful as well. I mean critically successful, and winning prizes, and awards. I don't know any musician personally who has nine Grammy awards, but I do, and they're all from the Emerson Quartet's recordings. So, in that sense, I've been a member of what I consider to be the most fortunate quartet that ever existed.

Finckel: Besides the nine Grammys, another prize that the Emerson Quartet gave you is sitting on your left-hand side. Tell me about how you and Wu Han met.

Finckel: My quartet was just beginning a kind of chamber music coaching residency at the Hartt School of Music in West Hartford, Connecticut, and my first job was to walk into rooms that I was assigned to, with young students who I didn't know, and listen to them play pieces. And one of the first rooms I went to had a little sign on the set, it said Wu Han, and I said, "I wonder what a Wu Han is?" And I went, and I found out it was the pianist. And she was sitting there, and she had on overalls, and big, thick glasses with bottles of Coke bottles in them, and sneakers, and everything, and the piano was horrible and out of tune, and the string players were not very good, but when she began to play the opening of the Brahm's B Major Piano Trio, I thought, something different is going on here. And not long after that, she was encouraged by her teacher to enter a competition that my quartet had started at the school where, if you won the competition, you get to play with the Emerson Quartet in a concert, a collaborative piece. So she entered on the Schumann Quintet. Won the competition, and played I believe the following May, and that was the start of a lot of collaborations. I loved her playing. I thought, wow, this is just so instinctive, and competent, and exciting. In that, the other guys in my quartet also began to appreciate her talents, and her assets in that way, and after some while, I appreciated her talents and assets in other ways as well, yes.

AJC: I wanna ask you for some relationship advice. You guys have been married for 32 years, you've been together for 35, which is great, but you work with each other, and you're also married. That would be likely to drive a wedge between even the most patient of people.

Finckel: But the reason we do music is not because we chose it as a career. It's because music chose us. We're compelled to do it. It's something that we work in service of, not in service of our own careers, and who we are, and what we get out of it. It's much more about, for us, our life's work is what can we put into it? What can we contribute to it? How can we share the joy and the privilege that we've had, partaking of this music? Knowing it. Having it enrich our lives so much. How can we share this? How can we bring this to more people? So, I think when you're working in a kind of an almost like a missionary mindset when it's not about yourselves, but it's about something that you both believe in so strongly, it doesn't interfere with a relationship. If anything, it holds us together. It keeps us tight. And it keeps us focused on very, very common goals.

AJC: You're gonna finish with something even more challenging.

Finckel: Eh, well, we're gonna play music by Shostakovich. It was written during a pretty difficult period of Shostakovich's life, for personal reasons and also professional reasons, but the work is beautifully tuneful. It has some of the most gorgeous music in it. And if there was anything that Shostakovich had to be angry, or perhaps sarcastic about in his life, at this point, I think he put it into the movement we're gonna play, which is the second movement called Scherzo, which is a kind of a wild ride.

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