Easy Harmony

Cellist David Finckel and wife Wu Han make sweet music while benefiting the UA's Camerata program.

All cellist David Finckel was looking for when he stepped out of his room at the Arizona Inn was a bit of fresh air.

What he found was a commitment to give a benefit concert for a University of Arizona music program, complete with a new piece by Tucson guitarist-composer Brad Richter.

Finckel is a superb soloist, but he's best known as cellist of the famed Emerson String Quartet. So, outside of the context of that ensemble, he can sometimes move incognito among the teeming masses.

Last October, the Emerson Quartet was giving a series of concerts for UApresents. On an off night, Finckel took a stroll around the Arizona Inn neighborhood and, he says, "happened upon a throng of people going into a church. I sort of followed them in because it looked like a concert, and I was interested in what it was."

It turned out to be a benefit concert for flutist Katherine Kitzman, a UA doctoral candidate diagnosed with breast cancer (she would die only three months later). The program featured Kitzman and a number of musicians affiliated with the UA School of Music and Dance, and its Camerata career development program.

"The place was packed with people, and I thought this was a wonderful thing," Finckel recalls. "Not too long into the concert, out came this guitar player named Brad Richter, and he started to play music he had written. This music spoke to me; it was so beautifully and spectacularly well-played. I was just taken with the whole thing."

After the performance, Finckel went up to Richter to talk about his music. Richter thought Finckel was just another well-wisher. "I'd known him through the Emerson String Quartet and by reputation for quite some time, but I didn't know I was talking to David Finckel," Richter says. Only after a short conversation, during which Finckel got Richter's e-mail address, and after Finckel left did someone inform Richter whom he'd been talking to.

"I was so embarrassed," he says. "There were so many other things I would've wanted to say if I'd known it was David."

Richter got his chance over the next few months, as the two developed an e-mail correspondence, and Finckel asked how he could get involved somehow in Camerata.

"I was very touched by the whole scene," Finckel says. "It was just one of those moments when everyone was there to find strength through music, to support each other, to do something important to a lot of people. I wanted to be a part of this, and I spoke to my wife about it."

Finckel's wife is the excellent pianist Wu Han, who joins him for duo concerts, recordings and directing music festivals--most recently creating Music@Menlo in Silicon Valley. The pair decided to give a benefit concert for Camerata at the UA on Monday, Oct. 6, the night before Finckel will join his partners in the Emerson Quartet for an Arizona Friends of Chamber Music performance downtown.

It wasn't enough to play sonatas by Beethoven, Strauss and Chopin with his wife; Finckel also asked Richter to write and join him in a duo for cello and guitar. The result is called Fragments Transcending.

Richter admits he didn't tailor the piece to Finckel's own style. "I'm too much of a novice at writing for cello to do that," he says. "A lot of the work I did was learning all about the cello, learning to play it a bit, and hiring Mary Beth Tyndall, a great cellist in the Tucson Symphony, to work out some of the kinks with me once I got the composition together."

Richter met up with Finckel at the Aspen Music Festival this past summer to go through the piece, and the cellist is delighted with the music. "Brad is a phenomenal artist, an amazing musician and an incredible guitar player," says Finckel. "This piece is very beautiful; the middle movement is based on a Navajo song to greet the sunrise, and the outer movements have sublime moments in them."

Says Richter: "One of the things he said he really wanted was to do on the cello some of what I do on the guitar. The thing I do most is explore new sounds and textures and try to find new sonorities, and he wanted me to try to come up with some techniques and sounds a cellist might not have used before."

Despite the experimental sounds and percussive effects on both instruments, don't get the idea that this is an especially avant-garde work; Richter says the harmonic language is more akin to that of Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky than Boulez. And the Navajo song in the second movement is one he learned while teaching guitar on the reservation.

Before and after the Richter premiere, Finckel and Wu Han will perform more standard but not hackneyed fare: Beethoven's Cello Sonata No. 3, the very early Richard Strauss sonata, and the more-talked-about-than-performed Chopin Cello Sonata. "All of them are pieces Wu Han and I have played many times, and recorded as well," says Finckel.

You might assume that David Finckel has been good for Wu Han's career, but the cellist insists it's the other way around. "Before I was in the quartet, as a young cellist, I studied intensely all the solo literature, and I always played sonata recitals. But when I joined the quartet, I had so much work to do with it that it was almost impossible to do anything else."

But then he met Wu Han in the early 1980s when she played in a competition the Emerson Quartet ran at the Hartt School of Music. "I was blown away--I thought, 'This girl plays music exactly like I feel it,'" Finckel says. Immediately he found the time to play duo recitals with her, which led to marriage and such joint projects as a daughter and an Internet CD label (www.artistled.com).

"Her presence in my life is why I do as much as I do apart from the quartet," he says. "It's been a wonderful, unexpected thing for me."

Which is how the Camerata people must feel about getting David Finckel and Wu Han to play a benefit for them.

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