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David Finckel’s Lyric Goodbye

by B.A. Nilsson on April 24, 2013


Just over a year ago, cellist David Finckel announced his intention to leave the Emerson String Quartet, with whom he’s been performing since 1979—three years after the quartet was founded. The group appears Sunday afternoon at Union College’s Memorial Chapel, after which Finckel will perform only four more times with the Emersons.

As with most of the stops on this tour, there’s a farewell aspect. Finckel knows the hall and the audience well, because alongside the 30 visits he’s made here with the quartet are many appearances with his wife, pianist Wu Han, in other chamber-ensemble configurations.

David Finckel

“And,” says Finckel, “I was in Schenectady even earlier as part of a Music from Marlboro tour in the ’79-’80 season. Daniel Berkenblit, who founded the Union College Concert Series, was also one of the earliest sponsors in America to engage me as a duo with Wu Han. So my loyalties with him and with Schenectady are in triplicate and go way, way back.”

Sunday’s concert opens with Mozart’s final string quartet, subtitled the “Hoffmeister,” followed by Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite, a six-movement work finished in 1926 that builds its episodes around tone rows. Finckel is sympathetic to the challenge this places on a listener.

“I think the further one ventures away from conventional tonality,” he says, “the scarier it can be. It’s a little like going into weightlessness, where your feet aren’t quite on the ground. But at the same time, being weightless is an incredible world to go into, and there are people paying hundreds thousands of dollars to be rocketed into space so they can get it for four or five seconds. It’s an incredible world that can express things in music that can’t be expressed in a tonal world.”

True to its title, adds Finckel, “a lot of it is extremely lyrical. It’s not all pointillistically written. There are melodies, counter-melodies—there’s almost a constant vocal line going on. It’s one of the most amazing pieces for string quartet. Nothing like it had ever been written. And if you really want to dive into the piece, it’s filled with hidden meanings and intrigue having to do with Berg’s affair with Hanna Fuchs-Robettin. But I’m not worried about the Schenectady audience at all.”

Closing the program is Dvořák’s Quartet No. 9 in D minor, “the one that came before the ones that we play all the time. It’s dedicated to Brahms, who was very helpful to Dvořák, so it’s very Brahmsian—but Dvořák is always Dvořák, even when he’s trying to sound like a western European, he’s still very much a Bohemian composer, so it’s filled with that flavor throughout.”

Will we see Finckel in Schenectady again? “If I’m welcome. I don’t believe in artistic entitlement. The arts can be wonderful and cruel. These places that I get invited back to year after year—I feel lucky every time it happens. I never totally expect. And I know from being a presenter that you have to welcome new talent and fresh faces, otherwise your series can become stagnant. That said, I deeply appreciate being able to visit Schenectady each year.”

The Emerson String Quartet will perform Sunday (April 28) at 3 PM as part of the Union College Concert Series (Union College Memorial Chapel, Schenectady). Tickets are $25. For more info, call 388-6080.