Wu Han

Q&A: Wu Han

A conversation with the pianist of the Finckel-Han-Setzer Trio, playing Nov. 3 on the Dallas Chamber Music series.

published Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Photo: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco
David Finckel and Wu Han

Dallas — Energetic and innovative pianist Wu Han will be in Dallas next week to perform with the Finckel-Han-Setzer Trio. Other members include Wu Han’s husband, cellist David Finckel, who was, until last year, a member of the Emerson String Quartet, and violinist Philip Setzer, who remains a member of the Emerson. The three musicians will be at Caruth Auditorium on Monday, Nov. 3 under the auspices of Dallas Chamber Music at Southern Methodist University's Caruth Auditorium. They’ll perform Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in C Minor, Op. 66 and Brahms’s Piano Trio in B Major, Op. 8.

TheaterJones talked with Wu Han about working with her husband, the program in Dallas, and about the expectations of a live performance.


TheaterJones: This is probably a question that you get a lot, but what’s it like to be able to play at such a high level with your husband?

Wu Han: Yes, I do get that question a lot! [Laughs] We started our relationship playing together before being romantically involved and somehow that intensity and chemistry started from the first time we played together. So even before we were involved, people would come up to us and ask, “Are you guys married?” And at the beginning, we just laughed and thought, “What are they talking about?” We are very fortunate, though. We have to make sure we keep things incredibly professional—not taking personal issues into rehearsal or our professional activities. That we make separate. It’s an unusual and treasured relationship, musically especially, so we take it really seriously. We still rehearse a lot and love working together. We just don’t think about who forgot to do dishes last night or didn’t put their clothes away at any of our rehearsals or performances, which I think is what it should be.


Photo: Christian Steiner
From left: David Finckel, Wu Han and Philip Setzer

A lot of times when chamber groups perform, the members haven’t necessarily played with each other very much, nor do they know each other very well. What’s it like to play in a trio with your husband and then a violinist he’s worked with for decades? How does that inform your rehearsals and performances, that you know each other so well?

It’s fascinating—people assume that if you know each other well, you’ll play well, but that’s never the case—I know many good friends or couples who hardly make music together—they just can’t play together at all. So I think—with David and Phil [Setzer] there’s always been this basic chemistry, even when they first met 35 years ago.

When they first met, they played in a piano trio with Phil’s ex wife on piano, and then they were instrumental in the founding of the Emerson Quartet. But the advantage of playing together for a long time is that you do know each other’s strong points and weak points, so you do very consciously prepare things and make decisions around that. Still, rehearsals are equally intense with people you’ve known 35 years or you’ve known five minutes. There’s no difference in my experience. We’re just very, very lucky that we enjoy each other’s company and enjoy each other’s playing. That’s another unusual aspect of this trio. So far, knock on wood, David and I have been married 29 years, and playing-wise have never really had a major disagreement. Knock on wood, knock on wood! [Laughs]

And as to the trio, the reason we play as a trio is that we love playing with each other, and we wanted to play the Schubert trio, which is one of the most intimate and sensitive kinds of music. You really have to have like-mindedness in order to produce that kind of harmoniousness and detail. When I asked David who could play the Schubert trio, he immediately said Phil would be the best person for that, and that’s how this particular trio was formed. It’s some of the most difficult music, the most sensitive music, the most demanding music. We played the Schubert at all these concerts and people went crazy. So we thought, okay, let’s tackle the Mendelssohn [trios]! Then Dvořák! Then Beethoven! Then Brahms! It’s been a very fruitful relationship, still with good friendship and laughter—it’s like we’re family. But a family with an incredible amount of respect and dedication to music.


What’s really great about the repertoire for piano trio? What’s your favorite repertoire for trio, and why?

I love Schubert—there’s just no other composer I love more. So it all started with Schubert! My next favorite composer is Beethoven. These two composers, thank God, both devoted energy to the trio genre. Beethoven wrote seven throughout his life, Schubert wrote 2 major trios before he died. Piano trio is very different from other chamber music genres—each individual has to be a very, very strong player. There cannot be a weak link, either technically or with chamber music skills or listening skills. You have to play piano trios as well as you play your solo repertoire. At the same time, you have to have all the chamber music chops, meaning you have to be able to respond spontaneously, you have to be able to control your instrument, be able to really make sure the balance is correct within the whole, complete group, not just your individual part. It’s a very demanding genre, and we certainly love it. I just think piano trio is the best! This will be our first time playing for the Dallas audience as a trio. Besides the Brahms and Mendelssohn C Minor, there’s a lot more repertoire to go! We just played a program of Shostakovich and Beethoven—it was heaven!


In the Brahms Op. 8 that you’re playing in Dallas, does the earlier version of the trio inform your performances of the later version at all? (Note for readers: Brahms heavily revised the Op. 8 trio, and the later version is the one contemporary musicians normally play.)

It’s so interesting you ask that, because we were just talking about that—there are recordings of the earlier version. But Brahms is such an incredible craftsman—he’s so diligent with his markings, his construction—so there’s a reason he revised it. I learned the later version first, and now when I go back and look at the early version, I realize why he revised it. He made the piece a lot more compact, a lot more dense, and [the later version has] a more rigorous construction. The later version is totally masterful. I’m totally in love with it. The early version, when I look at it, it does not speak to me anymore. When I’ve studied it, I’m thinking, oh, that’s interesting, but when I look at how he tightened it up—it’s like a good house renovation, you know? [Laughs] The kitchen has a new design, it has a much better layout, it’s more interesting.

The Mendelssohn C minor trio is an incredible piece. Most of the time you will hear the D minor trio. But the C minor for me is even more interesting and more intense, especially when we consider Mendelssohn’s background. His grandfather was an important philosopher, and was Jewish. But his father converted the whole family to Christianity for many reasons. The last movement definitely represents this religious conflict in Mendelssohn’s own life. The beginning is Jewish cantor music, kind of like a singing voice, then in the middle this incredible Christian chorale comes in. You just want to die for it—it’s very powerful. The C minor is a more demanding piece in my opinion than the D minor, both in terms of interpretation and texture. It’s written much thicker and much more orchestral-like. In my opinion it should be played as often as the D minor trio, for sure.

Those two pieces, the Brahms and the Mendelssohn C minor, it’s like chewing on two humongous meals in one sitting! [Laughs] It’s going to be a very rich and very opposite program. Brahms is very rigorous and very regal, sort of a German meal, while Mendelssohn is another kind of grandness in writing, but is about miracle and delight and emotional impact. Very, very different, but both are spectacular. These are two of the best pieces in the trio repertoire. But you know, when I decide to play a program, I get so excited—next time it’ll be Beethoven and Shostakovich, maybe, and I’ll speak with the same amount of enthusiasm! It will be a really worthwhile, a really great evening’s concert.


Both the Brahms and the Mendelssohn trios are very difficult piano pieces—the piano parts are almost certainly more difficult than the string parts, so you have the really difficult job here—was that on purpose?

No, I did not! [Laughs] I didn’t pick the program; I think the presenter did that. All I can say is, the audience will definitely get their money’s worth!  [Laughs] If they had to pay by the note, ticket prices would go up! The parts are demanding, for the piano sure, but also for the string players. But you know, I actually enjoy this kind of program much more than the standard program. These days, at our ages, having been on stage for this long, you want to do something that’s unusual, something that’s substantial, where you’re really making a statement. So for me, when I look at this program—you can look at it like the glass is half full or half empty—you can look at it and say, oh, there are only two pieces, or look at it and say, oh my God! What two pieces! [Laughs] Our programming these days tends to be pretty intense. It keeps you alive! It’s good for you! [Laughs]


Given that our readers have a lot of choices for what they buy tickets to, why should they come to the Finckel-Han-Setzer Trio performance?

There are a couple of things I believe in—I’m not only a performer, I’m also a presenter, with my job [as Co-Artistic Director] with The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, at Music@Menlo in the San Francisco area, and at a winter festival in Korea. There is a reason we should go to live concerts—a live performance is never a guarantee that you’re going to have a great experience— it’s something you’re going to go to and take a chance, to look for that aha moment, that hallelujah moment, that incredible moment that we all have experienced in live performance. Otherwise none of us would be in the business. Those moments are life-changing, sustaining spiritually. They make you feel like life is worth living and they make you a human being. We should all go out and be with the community, and be engaged in live performance. The way I think you can have a better chance of finding those moments is that you should, from my experience, follow your gut instinct, because some artists have more to say than others and some programs are more interesting and more provoking than others. Some presenters have a great reputation for consistent high quality. Those will be the places you want to be to catch those incredible, inspiring moments. For myself, sometimes I’ll go and think, well, that was good, but just not my cup of tea, and sometimes I’ll go and will be coming home in tears all night or can’t get a melody out of my mind—something about music, something about these great compositions goes into your heart and goes into your soul. I think that’s why everyone should get a ticket and should try it!

I can’t guarantee that night how great it is going to be, but artists like me will always try our best. We’ll play our hearts out. And you know, I have to say that our batting average these days is pretty high! [Laughs] Thanks For Reading

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Q&A: Wu Han
A conversation with the pianist of the Finckel-Han-Setzer Trio, playing Nov. 3 on the Dallas Chamber Music series.
by J. Robin Coffelt

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