Chamber Music Society’s Leaders on Balancing Old and New

Inside the offices of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center hangs an old letter from an alarmed listener.

“The accordion is not a chamber music instrument,” huffs the letter, written in the wake of a concert featuring a Bach sonata transcribed for cello and accordion. “Please do not impose that on your loyal audience again.”

The sentiment gives a sense of the grand passions aroused by even tiny tweaks to the society’s programming. Since becoming the organization’s artistic directors in 2004, the husband-and-wife team of David Finckel and Wu Han have faced those passions, which fuel an often fiery debate about the future of classical music.

Some quail whenever the society, which presents more than 100 concerts per year in New York and beyond, veers even slightly from traditional crowd pleasers, including works by Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. Others have said the organization should be more adventurous and do more to highlight the work of living composers, who are rarely featured on its main stage at Alice Tully Hall. (Of nearly 100 works on its Tully series this season, two are by living composers; neither was written in the 21st century.)

Reviewing the society’s opening night last month in The New York Times, Zachary Woolfe chided the organization for “a conservatism extreme even by classical music’s low standards.”

In an interview, Finckel, a cellist, and Wu, a pianist, discussed that criticism, as well as the impact of the pandemic and the return of live concerts. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Wu (on piano, third from left) played Mendelssohn last month with, from left, the violinist Richard Lin, the violists Matthew Lipman and Arnaud Sussmann and the bassist Blake Hinson.Credit…Cherylynn Tsushima

While several of your concerts in New York this season have been crowded, it’s unclear whether audiences will show up for culture as they did before the coronavirus. Are you concerned about the future for arts organizations?

WU HAN The future of the arts is actually brighter than before. The appreciation for music has grown tenfold because you realize how important it was in your life. For me to walk onstage now is still incredibly emotional. I don’t see how it will ever be the same after this pandemic.

How did the pandemic change you and your organization?

WU People know that in hard times we have each other’s backs. We support each other. The musicians know that. There’s incredible bonding.

DAVID FINCKEL In Soviet Russia, in Communist China, people were literally prevented from hearing music — not by a disease, but by governmental laws and censorship. It’s the way that I, as a privileged American, can feel an even deeper kinship with people having lived in Germany during the 1930s, or the 1940s and 1950s in China, and certainly the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin.

The pandemic wreaked havoc across the arts and forced the cancellation of dozens of your concerts. You made the decision to pay artists 50 percent of their promised fees and to add 75 percent more when those dates are rescheduled. How have you approached planning going forward?

FINCKEL Now we have a couple of sort of hybrid seasons where there are programs carried over. It never occurred to us to say, “Oh, because we couldn’t do it, it’s no good, it’s old, it’s like food you throw out in the fridge.” These programs don’t go stale. They’re still there waiting for new life.

Wu and Finckel (on cello, at right) played in 2015 with, from left, the violinist Daniel Hope and the violist Paul Neubauer.Credit…Tristan Cook/Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center

You have been criticized for not doing more to feature new music, especially in concerts at Tully Hall, your main stage. Can you explain your approach to programming?

FINCKELWe never want to force people to listen to music that they don’t want to listen to because we think it’s good for them. We will make educated guesses as to what we think they might like and latch onto. And in those instances, we stick our necks out.

There’s plenty of adventurous programing on the stage of Alice Tully Hall; one has to just study the brochure a little more carefully. But there are definitely programs for people who don’t want have anything to do with the 20th century, and there are programs for people who don’t want to have anything to do with the 18th century. So it’s all there.

Does Chamber Music Society do enough to champion new music, almost all of which is played in far smaller venues than Tully?

WU You should have old music, you should have new music, you should have the best musicians playing, then you should shoot for as many places to play as possible.

I don’t really care about having a premiere. The main idea is to have new music played as much as possible. New music should be thriving, should live forever, and should be played as much as possible.

In a recent review in The Times, Zachary Woolfe, while praising your performances as “generally of unimpeachable quality,” said that the programming of your opening night last month showed a “blinkered view of music” that “encapsulates what the society has presented for some time.” What is your response?

FINCKEL I just feel very sorry for this point of view. The person is missing so much opportunity for enjoyment. I mean, there is more variety and diversity in a single string quartet of Haydn than you can find in about a hundred works of other composers. Our repertoire spans 500 years of music. You know how much variety there is in that 500 years?

How do you judge the success of your concerts?

FINCKEL We use ourselves to judge, because we know when we hear a concert whether it came up to our expectations and our hopes as a good program or not. We know whether we played well or not. We know whether our artists played well. We consider ourselves experienced enough to be to be the ultimate judge of that and to build upon that experience, to take the organization forward. We take the blame.

WU When the hall is completely empty, when nobody wants to come hear our programming, when we finish playing and there’s no applause, when people hate it so much that they don’t want to come to see C.M.S. — that’s the time we have a problem. We are far from there.

What do you see as your main challenges in the years ahead?

FINCKEL People have a hard time sitting still. Attention spans are getting shorter. The only thing this doesn’t change is the length of a Schubert trio. You can’t make it shorter, and you can’t play it faster. You can’t cut sections out of it. The art is what it is.

We have this religious faith in the power and the quality of the art form — that it will grow up like grass grows up through concrete. It doesn’t matter how much concrete you put down; the grass is always going to come up.

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