Melvyn Krauss is a professional economist who often writes about music. He has published on music in the Wall Street Journal, Harper's, and Opera News. In his early years, he mostly spent his time in opera houses. But with the decline of great singers and production values, Mr. Krauss abandoned the opera house in favor of the concert hall where he found the standard of performing to be on a much higher level. He resides in Portola Valley, California with his wife Irene, two Irish setters, and two cats. He considers himself to be a New Yorker-in-exile.  
Chamber Music Duo a Triple Threat

Chamber Music Duo a Triple Threat

I am flattered my description of David Finckel and Wu Han as ‘America’s chamber music power couple’ 12 years ago in The Wall Street Journal has been copied by so many others. But that label really does not do full justice to the celebrated cellist and pianist; with the benefit of hindsight I think a fairer and more accurate label for the uniquely talented husband and wife team would be chamber music’s ‘Triple Threat’, a term purloined from American football.

On the gridiron, the rare triple threat is someone exceptionally skilled in passing, running and kicking the football. In Finckel and Han, chamber music has a duo exceptionally skilled in music making, promotion of chamber music and entrepreneurship.  

Yes, Finckel and Han from their perch as artistic co-directors of the renowned Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (CMS) have extraordinary power over the current chamber music scene—so many musicians currently active in the chamber music world owe their careers to them.

But power is not what makes these charmed champions of chamber music tick. As corny as it sounds, love for chamber music is what Finckel and Han are about, a love so strong (some might even call it obsessed) that it fuels a grueling back-breaking schedule on behalf of chamber music that would send people half their age to a rest home for an extended stay. Some friends worry they do too much though the same thing can be said of jet-setting conductors and opera stars.

So far, Music@Menlo, a 3-week summer festival of chamber music in Silicon Valley, has been their most successful venture outside of Lincoln Center. Until Finckel and Han came along, Menlo Park was a sleepy well-healed cultural wasteland during the summer months.

Now for 3 weeks during the summer this high-tech town bordering Stanford University has become the venue for a world class chamber music festival featuring many CMS elite like violist Paul Neubauer, violinist Philip Setzer and cellist Paul Watkins.

Finckel and Han deserve a standing ovation for forging this Lincoln Center-Menlo Park axis. I suspect many ‘music types’ don’t fully appreciate the type of entrepreneurial talent it takes to create a Music@Menlo out of thin air. Somehow the two New York-based musicians saw the potential of Silicon Valley to support and sustain a world-class chamber music festival—then proceeded to convert that dream into reality. Very few people, especially top-caliber musicians, are capable of doing that.

What did Finckel and Han see in Menlo Park that led them to believe seeds planted there would blossom into a wondrous garden? The area has a super-educated population very much into self improvement. There’s plenty of money in the area. The weather is gorgeous during the summer. And there is a major international airport nearby. After the fact it all seems obvious-- it always does.

I consider Finckel and Han pioneers in that they found an economically viable model for bringing first-class live chamber music from the country’s cultural center to the hinterland. The Metropolitan Opera used to do that with its touring national company but had to discontinue due to the expense. Now the Met has the HD broadcasts but that’s not live music and ‘live’ makes all the difference.

Besides the summer festival, Music@Menlo has been expanding its chamber music offerings into a winter series. That means I don’t have to put up with rain, snow and sleet in New York City anymore to hear top class live chamber music.  

Last winter at a local Jewish center I heard a superb Menlo performance with Paul Watkins (cello), Arnaud Sussman (violin), Gilles Vonsattel (piano) and Paul Neubauer (violist). Concerts like that make a New Yorker-in-exile like me a lot more relaxed about living in California. (What also helps is that I import bagels from New York City overnight via express mail-- the same principle though a different product.) If you can’t get it locally, import it.

Expanding the winter series is something Finckel and Han should give serious thought to. It would help build the audience for the summer festival, not subtract from it.

Another innovation Music@Menlo might try is ‘trading’ performing talent with other summer chamber festivals. James Ehnes, one of the really great violinists of our day, runs a chamber music festival in Seattle at more or less the same time as Music@Menlo. Why not send someone like Mr. Finckel or Ms Wu to Seattle for a week in return for a week from Mr. Ehnes? That would benefit both festivals and be fun to boot. 

This summer Music@Menlo runs from July 15 to August 6 and features Russian music. Besides David and Wu Han, the roster of participating artists include Alessio Bax, Gilbert Kalish, Alexander Sitkovetsky, Paul Watkins, Paul Neubauer the Calidore String Quartet, Tara Helen O’Connor and singers Dina Kuznetsova and Nikolay Borchev among many others. I am looking forward in particular to a concert on July 31st featuring Finckel and Han in the music of Shostakovich, Auerbach, Gluzunov and Rachmaninov. There are more than 30 events in total according to the press kit.

Be there or be square!

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