A Ghostly Concert at Tannery Pond: David Finckel, cello, Da-Hong Seetoo, violin, Wu Han, piano: Beethoven Trios

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What happened when the lights went out. The latest flash technology reveals what no one in the audience could see! photo Leslie Teicholz
What happened when the lights went out. The latest flash technology reveals what no one in the audience could see! photo Leslie Teicholz

David Finckel, cello
Da-Hong Seetoo, violin
Wu Han, piano

Ludwig Van Beethoven
Piano Trio Op.1, No. 1
Piano Trio Op.70, No. 1, “Ghost”
Piano Trio Op. 97, “Archduke”

The Tannery Pond Concerts, founded in 1991 by the renowned photographer and musician, Christian Steiner, is still in its youth, compared to its elders in Norfolk, Music Mountain and Marlboro, but it is true to the mold, such as it exists, and shows no signs of diffidence. Beginning in the 1960’s, Mr. Steiner’s position as the preeminent portraitist of musicians has given him a unique knowledge of the musical world. He is as much in contact with young, emerging artists as with the most established figures in the field, who have included Herbert von Karajan, Maria Callas, and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. As director of Tannery Pond, he is especially proudof the debuts or early appearances he has sponsored of musicians who have since risen to the top of the profession. Another feature of Tannery Pond is the beautiful old tannery, built in 1834, now the chapel of The Darrow School, which occupies the site of the New Lebanon Shaker Village. Its acoustics are remarkably present and intimate, and, since it seats only 290, its atmosphere is equally intimate. The audience, on the whole, appears to be composed of keen and educated music-lovers who have been attending loyally for some years. Many appear to know each other, and this enhances the family-like atmosphere of the concerts.

On June 20, the concert reflected the more exalted end of Mr. Steiner’s acquaintance. The pianist Wu Han and her husband David Finckel, cellist, are among the most prominent chamber musicians in America. Founders of Music@Menlo on the San Francisco Peninsula, they are also co-directors of the prestigious Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society in Manhattan. Mr. Finckel is cellist of the Emerson String Quartet. The couple have also founded their own record company, ArtistLed, which I have often praised as the very model of the healthiest trend in classical recordings, labels owned and managed by the musicians themselves. ArtistLed recordings are consistently noted for not only the intelligence of their programming and their musical qualities, but for their natural sound. This evening they were joined by the technical side of their operation, Da-Hong Seetoo, violin, who was introduced to the art of recording through his musical studies in his native China. These three have worked together for many years, even before ArtistLed, since Mr. Seetoo has produced many of the Emerson Quartet’s recordings for Deutsche Grammophon. He has won five Grammies for his work. They have known Christian Steiner for years, as their photographer, a sympathetic colleague in conveying the personal flair and style with which they have built not only audiences for themselves, but for chamber music in general. Hence, when they play at Tannery Pond, which is often, there is an added advantage: they seem as relaxed as if they were playing at home.

The all-Beethoven program almost carried me back to one of the great events of last fall, the Beethoven Trio marathon by the distinguished Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio for the benefit of the Brattleboro Music Center. However the Tannery concert was a very different affair. Wu Han and David Finckel are not only colorful people, they have developed a colorful approach to whatever music they take up. They push well beyond the boundaries of traditional classical chamber music style—and traditional Beethoven style—penetrating the shell of the phrases and textures and bringing out a whole new dimension of expressive and coloristic nuance.

Even in the early Trio Op. 1, No. 1 in E Flat major their approach was revelatory. The piece has often been described as a “symphonic” work because of its grand manner and, I suppose, its four movement structure (Note that Beethoven found the piano trio an excellent secondary format for his second symphony.), but the players found more than symphonic gestures, resorting to an astonishing range of dynamics, texture, and tone color to bring out the full variety of Beethoven’s score. In this respect Wu Han was totally in control of Tannery’s less than full sized Yamaha piano: in her hands its was an exceptionally beautiful instrument, which in fact it is in its own right.

If this group’s powerful tonal imagination provides an enhancement to Beethoven’s Op. 1, No. 1, it is absolutely essential in Op. 70, no. 1 in D major, known as the “Ghost,” a name which Beethoven disliked, as he did many of the programmatic names given his works by critics and other third parties. However, as Clair W. Van Ausdall points out in his lively program notes, Beethoven did in fact have ghosts on his mind at the time. In addition to the Opus 70 trios and the Symphony No. 6, he was working on a setting of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, in which he was thinking of using some of the otherworldly motifs he worked into the Largo of the D major Trio. I believe thistrio to be one of Beethoven’s particular marvels, although he himself was said to have preferred its mate in E flat major. It is economically built of short motifs, and each movement, above all the Largo, contain a wealth of astonishing harmonic twists, enriched by subtle coloristic effects. Beethoven often resorted to complex harmonic wanderings, when he decided to set all movements in the tonic, as he did here. His interest in color is also prominent in the contemporary Sixth Symphony, a frankly programmatic work. Here, as Lothar Schmidt has observed, color is inextricably woven into the score together with harmonic and rhythmical structure, notably in the strange keyboard tremolos. Not only in the more exotic passages of the Largo, but in the two outer movements the musicians could see right into the core of the music, and realize its character more fully than I have ever heard it performed. And that is a significant feat in this important work.

After the intermission, when we could enjoy the last few minutes of a brooding pink and gold sunset over the hills, the trio got the “Archduke” Trio off to a broad, noble start, bringing all the expression and nuance they had shown before. I was already looking forward to the great slow movement, the third, when, during the course of the Scherzo, the lights went out. It was clear that the power was totally gone. After a few exclamations from the stage in voices of various timbres and some wild laughter, various people from the front—in the dark I couldn’t see who—set to work to find a remedy. David Finckel, irrepressible joker that he is, repeated the spooky motif from the Largo of Op. 70, no. 1, starting off another peal of laughter. Could there be candles in reserve? Probably not in that old wooden structure, carefully protected by the Darrow School. After a few minutes flashlights of various sizes and kindsbegan to appear. Glowing fragments of Christian Steiner’s figure darted here and there across the stage like a willow-the-wisp, wielding a flashlight, and I recognized the lineaments of some board members, also holding flashlights. Eventually the light-bearers and the musicians reached an agreement on how the lights should be held, and the “Archduke” continued. Even in the dim light, after the jocular outbursts of the blackout, the musicians were able to pick up Beethoven’s thread and make their way through the Andante and the final Allegretto and Presto in a thoroughly worthy manner.

The house lights never came on again. Mr. Steiner urged caution. Automobiles were lined up across the small pond between the road and the tannery, and the audience made an incident-free and dignified withdrawal. Nothing untoward happened through the entire period of blackness. Wu Han, David Finckel and Da-Hong Seetoo managed to finish the concert in fine style. However, I must point out that in the previous concert the c-string of Edward Arron’s cello was broken. This seemingly harmless pattern of random mishaps may point to things beyond our ordinary ken. It can only be hoped that either Herr Steiner or the School will have the matter investigated by persons endowed with the requisite expertise.

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