by Daniel Hathaway
The trio with no name, but made up of three eminent musicians (violinist Philip Setzer, cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han) plays Schubert Trios on the Cleveland Chamber Music Society series on Tuesday, March 23 at Fairmount Temple Auditorium. Finckel and Setzer play in the Emerson Quartet; Finkel and Wu Han are husband and wife, owners of the recording company ArtistLed and co-artistic directors both of Chamber Music at Lincoln Center and Music at Menlo in California. Their Schubert tour derived from an ArtistLed recording project. Due to their busy schedules, we spoke with the trio in three different conversations. We reached David Finckel in Vienna, Wu Han in New York between rehearsals, and spoke with Philip Setzer soon after he returned from Europe.
DH: I just read the interview the three of you had with Classical Archives’ artistic director Nolan Gasser in February, and you touched on every subject I could possibly think to ask you about!
DF: That was quite some interview, wasn’t it.
DH: It must have taken some time to do, but I’ll try to find some interesting questions for you. First off, congratulations on the 13th anniversary of ArtistLed. How is the company doing in the current economic climate?
DF: Fine, because our decimal point is in another place. We manage to make ends meet because we have a loyal following. We keep our costs low without having it affect quality at all and we always manage to recoup our expenses through the sales of the recordings, which I think is the golden rule. So as long as we can do that, we can just keep going ahead and making more recordings.
DH: I’m curious if you know what the proportion of downloads to the sale of physical CD’s is?
DF: We just started to offer download capability, so I have no idea what people are doing. I became convinced eventually that there were going to be people who simply would never hear our recordings unless we offered them that way. I couldn’t abide by that even though i still believe in the highest quality product possible. If I could get into it I would even make a higher quality product than the CD itself. I still might. The technology is so incredible now not only for recording, but for listening back. You can have the most unbelievable sound right in your own home. So I’m very enthusiastic about that part of the recording industry continuing to develop as well.
DH: Now that you’ve fully embraced digital technology, what do you think of the recurring interest in analog recordings on vinyl?
DF: I’m not a scientist — I only know what my recording engineer tells me. His theory is that the reason people like the way vinyl sounds is because there’s not as much information in it. He’s taken a 24 bit digital recording, put on a vinyl recording of the same music and then made the digital recording sound exactly like vinyl. And that is all done through reduction of frequencies, not addition. I might offend some people here, but I do think that there’s something in all of us that craves something physical when we pay money for it. Like a book, for instance. Can you imagine going into a library some day and all you do is walk in and sit in a cubicle with a computer? I’m here in Vienna and I just came from a CD shop about three blocks from here. I said to the guy, you know, I love coming in here because we don’t have these shops any more in America. I crave being able to pick up the physical item and see a picture and read the booklet and if I buy it, then I have something in my hand. And after concerts, that’s when people buy CD’s. And they love it. They spend money on the concert, then they buy the CD, then they come with the booklet and they get an autograph. I tell them, “Hurry up and buy them while you can, because you can’t autograph a download”.
In one way I like the fact that vinyl is coming back in because I think it’s reaffirming that thing that was so exciting when you went and bought a record and you took it out of the plastic and put it on the machine. That was great. Not to mention the advertising real estate that a 33 rpm disc offered in terms of booklet size, and cover size. It was a reduction in marketing territory when we went down to the size of a CD and everything had to shrink. Everybody bought CD’s because they were newfangled and cool. In some ways it was not a good thing for classical music because the thing itself just got smaller and now with the downloading it’s completely disappeared. The problem with downloading is that there’s nothing you can put in the palm of your hand and give to somebody. You have to say, ok, you want to hear my recording: go here and download it — you just can’t hand it to somebody. It’s like a business card. You don’t just stand there and recite your URL to somebody when you want them to get in touch with you, you hand them a business card. So I think there’s something very, very important about the physical thing and I’m by no means ready to give up on that idea.
DH: It is reassuring to know that there are still CD shops in Vienna. You seem to have a really fine engineer. In that interview, someone said you went through the same editing process that is a trademark of ArtistLed. Can you talk a little about that editing process and how it’s different?
DF: I’m not sure how the rest of the world does it, but our recording sessions are very experimental. Let me back up and say that the whole idea of getting a bunch of wires and woofers and tweeters and these machines to produce something that sounds human like it should, that whole thing is an artificial exercise — it’s a science, it’s a magic trick. All of a sudden these boxes and wires and things sound like cellos or human voices, and, hey, that’s magic. What we’re concerned about is what comes out the other end. What we’re trying to do in the sessions is to have what comes out the other end be as wonderful musically as anything we’ve ever heard. In order to do that we have to do an awful lot of experimenting during the sessions, and we do it not only acoustically, but musically. We play things oftentimes in quite different ways, and we make sure that we have enough material when we leave the sessions that we know pretty much know that eventually we’re going to make something out of it that we really like. But it’s not the kind of thing where we go in and say “well, this is the way we play”, and a couple of times through and that’s it, God help it. We don’t think like that. We look at the sessions as an opportunity, like a laboratory, for making something that we will be happy with interpretively at the end.
So, after the sessions are done, our engineer takes a digital copy with him and we take a digital copy with us — they’re clones — and we begin to listen to everything that’s happened in the sessions. And that listening process just takes months. You make notes, and gradually you get used to hearing what was done, and gradually some things will emerge that stand the test of time, and others will start to fade away as sounding not as inspired or not as intriguing. In the end, Wu Han and I will construct the first edit of any piece based on what we like. Then we listen to that repeatedly. The technology allows us to make an edit and burn a CD and that goes with us wherever we travel. We listen to it in the computer, we listen to it in rental cars, we listen to it on other people’s systems, and we come home with a list of things that have not made us happy, and that process takes another few months until we really feel like we’re happy with the interpretation. And then the beauty of the technology is such that with the same computer editing software I can send the edit to our engineers because the edit is a very small file. It’s not the music itself, it’s a set of instructions about what to pick from the files as long as he has the same files that I do. He can then play the edit back from his system. That’s really very cool. And then, of course, because he’s a real professional, he’ll fix up all my splices, change the cross fade — he’ll tweak these little things so they’re really completely inaudible and you forget where they are. Then there’re a few more sessions where we sit in his house listening over his system, which is even more revealing than our own system. And then there are many, many final listening sessions — it takes about a year for us to get a record out.
DH: How long were the recording sessions for the Schubert trios?
DF: I think we did it in four days, about two movements a day. But they’re huge movements for the most part. When you’re recording a piece that is such a standard part of the repertory, you really have to feel like you’re going to do it better than anyone else did, or you’re not going to do it. You can’t promise that to yourself, but you can try. So our preparation was relentless. We listened to every single recording of those pieces that I could get my hands on. And I set out to make something which would make me happier than all those other recordings.
What happens in that process is a very deep absorption of the score. It’s a kind of getting rid of or letting go of your memories of other performances or recordings. My most extreme and difficult example of that was when I recorded the Dvorak cello concerto. I really had to let go of the way I learned that piece from Rostropovich, who has made all the great recordings of that work. Incomparable, but when I had the opportunity to record that concerto, I had to come to grips with the fact that I was not going to make another Rostropovich recording of that piece — it had to be my own. By the time I went back and began again with the score, and treated it like any other piece of music that I’ve learned, then it came out my own way. And I have to say I’m very happy with that. You can perform pieces, you can play it this way and that way, but when you go to make a recording, you’re really saying, this is what I believe in. And you’ve got to be ready for people to listen to it over and over again. So we put a lot of thought into that.
DH: How does it feel playing the trios after having made the recording? Do you find that anything changes?
DF: I’m sure it evolves. It’s absolutely wonderful because we really do know them inside out. With music this great you never stop working on it. We did a tour a couple of weeks ago and there were four or five concerts in a row, and every day before the concert we rehearsed a full two hours on the same two pieces. There are just never ending things to discover, to improve, to perfect. It’s great! I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of playing these two trios.
DH: Last question: how on earth do you manage your schedules between the duo, the trio and the Emerson?
DF: Well, it’s like watching a juggler who has four or five things up in the air. You just look at which one’s coming down and you just grab it and throw it up there again. We try to approach it in an organized fashion. The reality of a concert schedule imposes a kind of structure on your life. I know that a week from now I will be entering another Schubert trio phase. Right now, I’m two concerts from the end of an Emerson phase. Next week I will be in New York absorbed in the Finnish Festival of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. So I move from phase to phase with great pleasure. We couldn’t do it without our personal staff and our two excellent staffs in New York and California that run the society and the festival. We couldn’t do this without help — that would be insane. Plus, we have the world’s greatest travel agent and the world’s most understanding and wonderful daughter, who puts up with all of this. She’s 16, and we’re already planning what we’re going to have for dinner on Sunday night when I get home.
DH: Have you performed in Cleveland before?
Wu Han: I was down there once with David in recital, I think in 2001, and I believe I was down there with the Chamber Music Society a couple of years ago.
DH: We’re looking forward to your return for the Schubert trios. I talked to David at some length about the long editing process you go through when you’re making a recording. It must almost be like having a child!
WH: It’s torturous!
DH: Now that you’ve lived with the trios for a year — between the recording and the release — how do you keep the live performances fresh?
WH: Just don’t listen to the last one! You just try to forget about the last one as quickly as possible. Actually, it’s not that hard. You could never play those two pieces the same way. These two pieces have their own life on stage and I don’t think you could ever predict that, and also playing with Phil and David — there’s something always happening on stage so it’s not that hard to keep it fresh. But to keep it good, that’s another story! That’s the most challenging.
DH: And you never stop rehearsing.
WH: No. Impossible!
DH: I talked with Menahem Pressler earlier this year, and he told me that with his own trio, the Beaux Arts, they would still rehearse for three hours before a concert no matter how often they had played the repertory.
WH: I actually wrote to Menahem after our last two week tour. I said, “Menahem, how did you do it?” And he wrote me back immediately — let me find you the email — it was the cutest thing. This guy never finished learning, it’s so incredible. He’s never satisfied, which is inspiring for a younger generation. Here it is. He says, “It was always difficult, but climbing the magic mountain promised always the greatest reward. Like childbirth, all the difficulties are forgotten”.
DH: What were you rehearsing this morning?
WH: I was playing this great quintet by Taneyev. It’s a really first class quintet. I’m playing it tomorrow with the Escher Quartet in Sanibel Island. I go there almost every year now. It’s very hard to go back to play for the same audience, because you always want to play well and better than the last time. Even as much as everybody loves you, I always want to play better than before. This piece is very difficult, but this young quartet is just spectacular. I moved the rehearsal to Lincoln Center because the piece is massive. Yesterday we rehearsed in our apartment and I think the window was shaking. We need a bigger space!
DH: Is there such a space on Sanibel?
WH: It’s the church. It’s going to be pretty spectacular with this piece and this powerful group of players.
DH: And it is a nice time to go to Florida — in the middle of March.
WH: I wish I could stay, but I’m turning right around and coming back because David’s coming home Sunday so I’ll get to see him a little bit.
DH: And then you all go touring the Schubert again?
WH: Yes, nine cities in a very short period of time — ten or eleven days. Then I go to the far east and David goes back with the quartet.
DH: Which brings me to my next question — how on earth do you manage your schedules between the two of you, the three of you and the four of them?
WH: With a very good travel agent — that’s very important! This time we have a massive itinerary. Lillian will come and meet us in the Chicago airport and catch up with us in the middle of the tour and stay with us a little bit on her spring break. So the travel agent is important, and also a spectacular personal assistant. She’s the one that worries about everything. It’s like if you don’t have enough hard drive on your brain you get an external hard drive, so Susan’s my external hard drive. I admit I don’t have enough RAM in my brain — I have to save that for music, for programming.
DH: I’m always interested in the dynamics of people who are married to each other and play and tour together. How does that work for you and David? Are you able to separate your professional and private lives?
WH: Oh absolutely — that’s the first requirement. When the music starts, your job is to serve music, and you don’t really bring — look, I don’t really think about who’s supposed to wash the dishes when I rehearse with David. And then I think that this particular group is extraordinary. Between David and Phil there is an incredible amount of trust and a long friendship, a really, really sincere respect for each other’s ability, and there are tons of humor in this group. We have always the best time. We travel still together, and we all love working, so it’s not a problem, and we all love food!
DH: Food is very important when you’re touring.
WH: Oh, you bet! So that keeps us going. So where should we eat after the concert? I’m sort of worried…
DH: I can e-mail you some suggestions!
WH: That would be fantastic.
DH: What’s your next recording project?
WH: It’s a really great project, but I can’t tell you! If I tell somebody what we’re recording, then I’m obligated to release that. It’s much better for me to be very organic. It’s actually already in the can, but I don’t really know once you start to edit if that’s going to be a good recording or not. It feels great when we play it, but I had the experience before. I told everybody that our second recording was going to be the Brahms sonatas, and then we started to edit it and we hated it. Because it sounded so exciting and then it was so boring after a live performance. It sounded like somebody so young that didn’t have any patience. It was a very exciting recording, but after you listened to it four hundred times you just want to kill the people. For a live recording or a live concert it’s perfect, but after a while you just wanted to say, “Calm down!” We actually began to edit it and abandoned it. We went back and re-recorded it and learned a tremendous amount. That’s the beauty of having my own company — I don’t really have contractual obligations to anybody. If we make a recording I don’t like or believe in, I don’t need to release it. The only thing you lose is money and time, but you never lose time because you learn.
DH: Speaking of editing, are you going to make any cuts in the finale of the E-flat trio in Cleveland?
WH: We always do the cut version. I never liked the full version even when I was learning and fooling around with it. The cut version just makes more sense to me structurally. The piece is massive enough, and when that haunting slow movement comes back, it’s so incredible. There’s no reason to add anything.
DH: Thanks so much for speaking with us. I’m sorry we couldn’t all be in the same room.
WH: If you had all three of us in the same room, it could be the funniest thing — we’re all funny, especially Phil, who is just such a fun-loving person (you can tell him I said that).
DH: Phil is from Cleveland — you have to have a sense of humor!
WH: Usually with three of us we don’t get much done — you may never get a straight answer!
DH: I’ve already talked with David and Wu Han at length and I’ve read the interview you all did with Nolan Gasser in February — so boy, do I have a lot of information about the trio and the recording projects! How do you manage your schedules between the trio and the quartet?
PS: The trio is a very limited offer, as they say. It’s really a project that David and Wu Han and I really wanted to do, to record and perform the Schubert trios. So really we’re only offering them during two one week periods that we know the other guys want to have off because it’s their kids’ school vacation. It’s not conflicting with the Emerson schedule at all. The only thing it’s conflicting with is — if I weren’t doing the trios, I’d have a little bit of a break! It’s worth it. It’s been a great experience recording and playing these pieces. They’re two of my very favorite pieces of music, and ones that because of playing in the quartet I don’t get to play that often. It’s a great opportunity for the three of us to really get comfortable with them. They’re extremely difficult to play, and very uncomfortable for a lot of reasons when you just start working on them. It’s a great learning experience for us to record them and play them a number of times.
DH: Now that you’ve lived through the recording and editing experience, how do you keep your live performances fresh?
PS: There’s no danger of these pieces losing their freshness. It’s like saying to an actor, “How do you do Hamlet eight times a week? Don’t you get tired of it?” No, with things this great and challenging — not so much technically but musically and interpretationally — it’s endless. You don’t feel like, “Well, we’ve got that down now, and I guess we’ll go play it a few times exactly like that and we’ll be done.” It’s not like that. It’s a great challenge and a wonderful challenge. You feel each time that you’re up against something much bigger than you are, and you just try to come to terms with it and do the best you can. Bring the music across to the public — that’s the main thing.
DH: Of course, you’re a native Clevelander. How does it feel to come back?
PS: I’m going to have very mixed feelings coming back because it’s the first time I’ve played there since both my parents passed away. I was thinking about that today — I’m going to really not have to think about that too much when I’m on stage; it’s going to be a little too much emotion. There are other people who are gone since then too — Kurt Loebel, who was a very close friend of our family, my dad and he played in the Symphonia Quartet for many years, and Kurt and Ingrid were my brother’s godparents. It’s always wonderful to come back to Cleveland. I still have many friends there — a few friends from high school still live there. And people I know in the “music business” who are teaching at CIM or playing in the Orchestra, so that part’s always great. But it’s going to be with a tinge of sadness to come back, for sure.
DH: Do you have any future plans for the trio?
PS: We’ve talked about it a little bit. I find it hard to believe that we won’t continue to play together, but it always has to be a limited thing because first of all, we just can’t do that much. The quartet is still playing between 85 and 90 concerts a year and I think we’re doing 17 or 18 trio concerts — plus I’m teaching full time at Stony Brook. Half of my position there is with the quartet which is in residence at Stony Brook, and half is teaching violin. David and Wu Han of course are running the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center as artistic directors and also their summer festival, Music at Menlo. So I think if we do more playing, it’s always going to be a limited thing. We’ll probably pick a program — or we’ll just go on playing Schubert, which is fine with me! It’s funny because the group doesn’t even have a name. We haven’t really thought about if we’re going to be an official group or a group that plays the Schubert trios. I thought we could maybe be like a chamelon — depending on the program. Right now, we’re The Schubert Trio then in a couple of years we’ll play Mendelssohn and be The Mendelssohn Trio.
DH: Do you ever take any time off, and how do you spend it?
PS: I’m going to take time off this summer from the end of July to the end of August. I’m just going to be home. I enjoy being home with a lot of projects to do. I have a telescope that my wife gave me for my birthday a year ago which is all digital computerized and absolutely fascinating. I plan to put it together and learn how to use it. And I’ve been writing some music that’s in pieces that I’d like to finish this summer. But most of all, I just want to relax and put my feet up!