Hanging in the offices of the Chamber Music Society at Lincoln Center is an old letter from an alarmed listener.
“The accordion is not a chamber musical instrument”, blows the letter, written in the wake of a concert with a Bach sonata transcribed for cello and accordion. “Please don’t impose this on your loyal audience anymore.”
The sentiment gives an idea of the great passions generated by even tiny adjustments to the company’s programming. Since becoming the organization’s artistic directors in 2004, the husband-and-wife team of David Finckel and Wu Han have grappled with these passions, which fuel an often heated debate about the future of classical music.
Some cringe whenever the company, which presents more than 100 concerts a year in New York and beyond, deviates even slightly from traditional audience delights, including works by Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. Others said the organization should be more adventurous and do more to showcase the work of living composers, who are rarely featured on its main stage at Alice Tully Hall. (Of nearly 100 works in his Tully series this season, two are by living composers; none were written in the 21st century.)
Reviewing the company’s opening night last month in The New York Times, Zachary Woolfe chastised the organization for “extreme conservatism, even by the lowest standards of classical music.”
In an interview, Finckel, a cellist, and Wu, a pianist, discussed this criticism, as well as the impact of the pandemic and the return of live concerts. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
While many of your concerts in New York this season have been packed, it’s unclear if audiences will show up for the culture like they did before the coronavirus. Are you concerned about the future of arts organizations?
Wu HAN The future of the arts is actually brighter than before. The appreciation for music has increased tenfold because you realize how important it was in your life. For me, going on stage now is always incredibly emotional. I don’t see how it will ever be the same after this pandemic.
How has the pandemic changed you and your organization?
Wu People know that in difficult times, we support each other. We support each other. Musicians know this. There is an incredible bond.
DAVID FINCKEL In Soviet Russia, in Communist China, people were literally prevented from hearing music – not because of disease, but because of government laws and censorship. This is how, as a privileged American, I can feel an even deeper kinship with people who lived in Germany in the 1930s, or in 1940s and 1950s China, and certainly in the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin.
The pandemic has wreaked havoc on the arts and forced the cancellation of dozens of your concerts. You have made the decision to pay the artists 50% of the promised fees and to add 75% more when these dates are postponed. How did you approach planning for the future?
FINCKEL Now we have a few kinds of hybrid seasons where there are postponed programs. It never occurred to us to say, “Oh, because we couldn’t make it, it’s not good, it’s old, it’s like food that we throw in the fridge. These programs do not expire. They are still there waiting for a new life.
You’ve been criticized for not doing more to showcase new music, especially at gigs at Tully Hall, your main stage. Can you explain your approach to programming?
FINCKEL We never want to force people to listen to music they don’t want to listen to because we think it’s good for them. We’ll make educated guesses about what we think they might like and cling to. And in these cases, we crane our necks.
There’s plenty of adventurous programming on the Alice Tully Hall stage; just study the brochure a little more carefully. But there are certainly programs for people who want nothing to do with the 20th century, and there are programs for people who want nothing to do with the 18th century. So it’s all there.
Is the Chamber Music Society doing enough to champion new music, almost all of which is performed in venues much smaller than Tully?
Wu You should have old music, you should have new music, you should have the best musicians playing, and then you should aim 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 thrive, live forever, and be played as much as possible.
In a recent Times review, Zachary Woolfe, while praising your performances as “generally of impeccable quality”, said that your opening night lineup last month showed a “blind view of music” that ” sums up what society has presented for a day.” What’s your answer?
FINCKEL I’m just sorry for this point of view. The person misses so many opportunities to have fun. I mean, there’s more variety and diversity in a single string quartet by Haydn than in a hundred works by other composers. Our repertoire covers 500 years of music. You know how much variety there is in those 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 if it met our expectations and hopes for a good program or not. We know if we played well or not. We know if our artists have played well. We consider ourselves experienced enough to be the ultimate judge and leverage that experience to move the organization forward. We take the blame.
Wu When the room is completely empty, when nobody wants to come and listen to our programming, when we’re done playing and there’s no applause, when people hate it so much they don’t want to come see CMS — this is where we have a problem. We are far from it.
What do you see as your main challenges in the years to come?
FINCKEL People find it difficult to sit still. Attention spans are getting shorter and shorter. The only thing that doesn’t change is the duration of a Schubert trio. You can’t make it shorter and you can’t play it faster. You cannot cut sections of it. Art is what it is.
We have this religious faith in the power and quality of the art form – that it will grow like grass grows through concrete. It doesn’t matter how much concrete you lay down; the grass will always come up.