Wu Han, Lincoln Center Chamber Society retool for a virtual broadcast season

October 23, 2020
By Charles T. Downey
Wu Han’s series Front Row: National presents its next virtual concert at Wolf Trap this weekend. Photo: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

As the coronavirus pandemic canceled the end of last season and spiked in the summer, classical music organizations scrambled to adapt their fall seasons. A few are presenting in-person concerts again, but only outdoors or with tiny audiences. In most cases, digital innovation seems the most promising way to keep everyone, musicians and listeners alike, safe until the crisis is under control.

Pianist Wu Han and her husband, cellist David Finckel, are the founders of the Music@Menlo festival in California and artistic directors of the Chamber Music Society (CMS) of Lincoln Center. Wu Han, who has served as artistic adviser for the chamber music series at Wolf Trap since 2018, spoke recently about her new project, Front Row: National, which is bringing digital content from Lincoln Center to presenters around the United States this fall.

These virtual broadcasts feature performances recorded for CMS in recent seasons, paired with documentaries about the musicians involved and how they are facing the challenges of Covid-19. “I decided in the pandemic that we all need to be more personal,” Han said. The next program in the series showcases pianists Alessio Bax and Lucille Chung, who happen to be married. “So they are surviving as musicians with a young child at home,” she explains.

Two of the pieces featured in these online programs, Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion and Tchaikovsky’s String Sextet (“Souvenir de Florence”), were performed at CMS just before health restrictions were put in place. “Those were the very last pieces that we played before we shut down the whole series,” Han noted. “Everybody realized that, so the performance was really intense.”

Among the remaining programs this fall is one focusing on violinist Cho-Liang Lin. “He has a totally different perspective,” says Han, “growing up and playing in the far east since he was very young.” The final program features Gilbert Kalish, whom Han calls “the most well-respected and the most wise among all of us.” The pianist has a long connection with George Crumb, some of whose early songs are performed.

This enterprising solution is the happy result of decisions made over many years. Han and Finckel also run a recording company called ArtistLed, and they have produced many recordings from the Music@Menlo festival. “We are not doing this because it’s a job,” Han explained passionately. “When David and I started Menlo, we said to each other, ‘If we do not record our generation of musicians, their greatest work will disappear’.”

When they took over at CMS, with the help of visionary donors, they purchased high-definition cameras and a media center. CMS had been audio-recording its concerts since its founding, yielding a large archive of performances. Han and Finckel extended the idea to video, working with the musicians and the union to settle on a media contract. “We saw the internet,” Han said. “We saw how people are so much more interested in visual things versus just listening, so we thought we should have both.”

When the pandemic hit, Han knew that CMS had ten years of content to work with. “At the moment I have over 1,000 pieces in my video archive,” Han says proudly. “Probably only the Library of Congress has that much. The beauty of it is that it has no limitation of budget, no worries about balancing out the number of musicians, and so on. I can choose whatever I want.” Han estimates that 40 to 50 presenters across the United States will show these online programs, resulting in around 240 broadcasts this fall.

Han hopes that these recorded programs and their accompanying life stories will help struggling classical music organizations keep audiences engaged. “Each of these documentaries has a different way of looking at the pandemic,” she adds. “They’re usually uplifting in the end, but they can also be quite poignant. Hopefully when this whole craziness is over, we will have this documentation on the history of what happened to classical music organizations.”

Han does think about coming out on the other side of the pandemic, and she affirms that her ideas about what makes a good chamber music concert will remain the same. “I surround myself with great people,” she explains. “People who are deeply engaged and committed to the same principles. I believe that musicians are here to serve the music. Audiences do not come to watch famous people, they come to learn about the music.”

She tends to start with programming ideas, what would form an ideal arch for a season, and then select the musicians who would do it justice. The luxury of an organization like CMS is that they can reach into the less-explored corners of the repertoire. “Chamber music is more than just string quartets and piano trios,” Han explains. “They are most convenient for a chamber music series, but the problem is that you miss out on all the most spectacular ensemble pieces: Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, Beethoven’s Septet, the piano quartets, the duos and trios, the mixed-ensemble wind music.”

“The definition of chamber music for me is individual voices on equal footing,” she reflects. “I need to have a conversation, so it can be as small as two or as large as a Brandenburg Concerto. As long as each player is an individual voice and each contributes in a collaborative effort, without a conductor to boss everyone around, I consider that chamber music.” For her, that means music from baroque to contemporary. “It’s easier if it does not involve original instruments because that muddies the water,” she adds with a bright laugh.

The first of the CMS virtual programs, devoted to composer Michael Brown, showed the same continuity with the CMS approach, before and during the pandemic. “In my world, both at Menlo and Lincoln Center and at Wolf Trap, we are committed to creating new work,” Han insists. “We are taking care of the future, as well as the past.”

The future remains uncertain for classical music. Major ensembles like the New York Philharmonic and Chicago Symphony Orchestra have announced the cancellation of concerts in the second half of the 2020-2021 season. One silver lining, as Han points out, is that CMS could offer more of this kind of online programming going forward if the rest of this season is wiped out.

“I can tell you that my days these days are like the movie Groundhog Day,” she quips, laughing. “Every morning starts exactly the same. Every day people ask me impossible questions that I don’t have answers to. The best answer I can give you is we are standing by, to jump on any possible opportunity to bring music to our audience, because I feel we need it desperately. We all need to be together, we all need music.”

No one in the business can foresee the future. Han feels strongly that if people like her can keep chamber music presenters flexible, they will be the first ones to come back. 

“We have a whole group of maniacal, devoted musicians who are dying to play,” she enthused. “Most likely at this juncture, I would prefer to show people the best of the best, the greatest achievements of the repertoire. That’s the most comforting and the most inspiring.”

Wolf Trap will stream the next Front Row: National program, featuring pianists Alessio Bax and Lucille Chung, among other musicians, October 25 to 30. wolftrap.org


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