Wu Han: In Concert and Conversation
Discipline is a virtue—a fact the Taiwanese-American pianist Wu Han came to understand from a very young age.
Wu Han is a world-famous pianist and arts administrator, widely known as a performer of chamber music.
Born in 1959 in Taiwan, she began studying piano at age 9 and was playing concerts by age 12. She came to the United States in 1981 to attend The Hartt School in Connecticut, with a double major in viola and piano. She married cellist David Finkel in 1985. They have performed together and separately on many of the world’s major stages, including Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center. Since 2004, she and Finkel have served as codirectors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Centerin New York. They are also cofounders of independent record label ArtistLed and the annual Music@Menlo Festival in Silicon Valley, CA.
Wu Han has recorded over twenty albums, including For David and Wu Han (2009), contemporary works composed specifically for the duo. She has performed as a soloist with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Aspen Chamber Symphony, and the Philadelphia Orchestra, among other ensembles.
In November 2017, celebrated Taiwanese-American pianist Wu Han came to Philadelphia for a special performance.
Wu Han and her husband, the American cellist David Finckel, are among the most highly-regarded partnerships in classical music today. But they don’t just perform. Since 1997, they’ve run ArtistLed, one of the first musician-owned, internet-based record companies. They’re also co-directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and co-founders of the annual Music@Menlo Festival in Silicon Valley. But all the success was hardly preordained for a young Wu Han. Growing up poor in Taiwan, music was a luxury the family could scarcely afford, until one day when Wu Han’s father used the money that was supposed to buy a suit on a record collection and turntable. The household was transformed.
Wu Han: My father [played] that machine day in and day out. As soon as he comes home, the LP will be on. Sometimes he plays through the evening, and then he [declared] all of his kids had to learn how to make that noise. And my mother was desperate because we’re very poor, there’s no way we can afford piano lessons. So she is a very resourceful and practical Chinese woman, and so my mother bartered. We trade piano lessons for this guy can come to—my first piano teacher—can come to our house to have dinner every night. For three months, my teacher taught me two little pieces. Everybody knows. And I learned that two little pieces and it’s unsustainable, so my mother sent me for a full scholarship—a special music training program—and I fooled them all at the audition.
AJC: With two pieces?
Wu Han: With these two pieces. And they took me in and in [a] very short time, they [realized] I do not even read music and it was terrible. And the special music program started from kindergarten and I was nine years old already, and so it was [an] emergency that I had to be put on notice to really catch up.
And she would catch up. At conservatory in Taipei, she got up early and stayed up late, practicing piano, viola, percussion, and traditional Chinese instruments. At age 20, she came to the U.S. to study at the Hartt School of Music in Hartford, Connecticut but at home, there was a slight misunderstanding.
Wu Han: My parents thought I’m going to Harvard. Until the package [arrived] and it was not in Massachusetts, it was in Connecticut. But what’s the difference, you know? My teacher [asked] me, “Have you done any chamber music?” I said, “No.” Chamber music is not popular in the far East. We were trained to be famous and play as loud and fast as you can, and it’s fun. But chamber music is a different art form. My teacher explained to me, “Chamber music takes sensitivity. It takes ears. You’ll be a much better musician if you know how to play chamber music.” And I thought, “Whoa, another challenge. That sounds great. How do I do that?” And he said, “There’s a young string quartet, just signed up with Hartt School of Music, and that was the Emerson Quartet. They have a competition and maybe you can compete on that.” So I learned the Schumann Quintet and I did win the competition, and later I did marry to the cellist in the Emerson Quartet.
AJC: You kinda jumped past that one, so let’s talk about that. Is it true that he fell in love with you because of your playing? You fell in love with him because of his playing? It’s a very romantic story.
Wu Han: You’re actually right. There are times you find a partner in life that there’s chemistry and you don’t even know why. It was just always so beautiful. I can hear what he’s thinking before he even [starts] to play, and I love that feeling. It’s just a partnership that I’m very blessed with in my life.
Wu Han has dedicated her life to her unwavering belief in the transformative power of music.
Wu Han: I just really want everybody to love music like the way I’m loving music. And it’s so fantastic. It really—it’s kind of health food, that the more you eat it, it’s better for you, and you feel better and better. And in hard time, in difficult time, those were the [times] that I feel this music serves. It gives us comfort. It gives us an excuse to escape from the real world. And these days, I hear people say, “Oh, this is elite music and all that.” I just laugh at it. I came from the most, you know, modest family, and I love this music so, so much, and I know it gave people so much comfort and so much inspiration. So that’s why I do what I do. I will work myself to death in the name of music, and I will die very, very happy.