Wu Han and David Finkel (image courtesy of Spivey Hall)

Enthralling artistry in divine acoustics: Wu Han and David Finckel enchant Spivey Hall audience

CONCERT REVIEW:
David Finckel & Wu Han
February 24, 2024
Spivey Hall, Clayton State University
Morrow, GA – USA
David Finckel, cello; Wu Han, piano.
Felix MENDELSSOHN: Sonata No. 2 in D Major for Cello and Piano, Op. 58
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH:Sonata for Cello and Piano in D Minor, Op. 40
Edvard GRIEG: Sonata for Cello and Piano in A Minor, Op. 36 

William Ford | 26 FEB 2024

About 20 miles south of midtown Atlanta, in the town of Morrow, is one of the most highly regarded performing spaces in Georgia. Located on the campus of Clayton State University sits Spivey Hall, made famous, in part, by its splendid acoustics. To listen to chamber-sized musical groups perform here is to hear them in a rich, warm, and intimate space.

Truth be told: the powers-that-be at Spivey seem to have a compulsive drive to host a magnificent series of marquee classical music talents. If you are a famous smaller group or soloist, being booked at Spivey Hall is Atlanta’s equivalent to being booked at London’s Wigmore Hall; it means you are playing in a notable venue that can make a performance sound superb.


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On Saturday, Spivey presented pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel in an enchanting program that contrasted musical styles and nationalistic influences. The duo is celebrated for exceptional musicianship as well as their support of chamber music. Their leadership of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center has supported the development of emerging young musical talent. They hold multiple leadership positions at other festivals, and both are multi-award-winning instrumentalists, including receiving the prestigious Musicians of the Year Award from Musical America (2012).

Wu Han began by addressing the audience about the excellence of Spivey as a venue and a bit about the history of each of the pieces on the program. Her engaging style and depth of knowledge easily focused and engaged the 300-patron audience.

The program began with Mendelssohn’s Sonata No. 2 in D Major for Cello and Piano (1843). The composer’s works were notable because they represented a transition from the classical to romantic periods in Western art music (particularly those of the First Viennese School); they have the clarity, elegance, and structure of the classical period combined with a restrained romantic expressiveness. The Sonata is in four movements. The first is lively and spirited (“Allegro assai vivace”), with an energetic theme introduced by the cello and then developed by both instruments. The second movement is a happy, playful scherzo. The third is a slower, more introspective movement (“Adagio”) with a poignant melody, carried mostly by the cello. The final movement (“Molto allegro e vivace”) is thrilling, characterized by virtuosic passages for both instruments. Wu Han and Finckel played as if the music were second nature to them — it was effortless, technically strong, and beautifully lyrical.


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Next on the program highlighting nationalistic influences in music was Shostakovich’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in D Minor, Op 40 (1934). The Russian-born composer had a tenuous and changing relationship with Soviet officials. He fell in and out of grace with party leadership but eventually became a delegate himself to the Supreme Soviet in 1960. His works have been interpreted as challenges to the State, yet at other times, as glorification of it. The Sonata was written after his wife found out about his romantic relationship with a student, drama ensued, and Shostakovich traveled, apparently penning the music amid the turmoil.

It’s a four-movement work (“Allegro non troppo,” “Allegro,” “Largo,” and “Allegro”). The music makes great demands on performers, but Wu Han and David Finckel hardly seemed to notice. The Sonata has emotional intensity, with some lush harmonies ranging from melancholy to joy, with a bit of dissonance thrown in for variety. The piece follows classical structures, but its hyper-emotionality is surely Russia-inspired.

After the intermission, the duo returned for a performance of Grieg’s Sonata in A Minor for Cello and Piano (1882-83). During his career, the composer moved away from the traditions of the Viennese School to emphasizing Norwegian folk music and rhythms, as well as the Norwegian landscape. Grieg’s music is extraordinarily listenable and melodic. The three-movement work (“Allegro agitato,” “Andante molto tranquillo,” and “Allegro molto e marcato”) showcases the composer’s love of the piano; it carries a lot of the melody, harmony, and color in the Sonata. Grieg seems to borrow themes and melodies from his other works to incorporate here. Echoes of his famed Piano Concerto, incidental music for Sigurd Jorsalfar, and the Lyric Suite seem ever-present.


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After an enthusiastic reception from the audience, Wu Han and David Finckel played the “Andante” from Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata in G Minor. It was spellbinding and a quick reminder of why this composer’s music is so popular.

I had three thoughts at the conclusion of the concert. The first is that Wu Han and David Finckel are superb musicians who play like people who can complete each other’s sentences. The second is that “nationalism” in music can help sustain folk influences while adding variety to the music we hear. The third is that everyone who likes chamber music in the Atlanta area should take the short trip to Morrow to luxuriate in the wonderful acoustics of Spivey Hall.

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About the author:
William Ford is an avid classical music fan and a clinical psychologist based in Atlanta. His reviews and interviews can most frequently be found online at Bachtrack and www.atlantamusiccritic.com

Read more by William Ford.
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