40th on 100th: David Finckel and Wu Han grace Robinson Hall once again


Amid fireworks and other fanfare on the eve of Winter Carnival, David Finckel and Wu Han, a cellist-pianist couple currently residing in New York, delivered the 10th performance of the Performing Arts Series’ 100th season. 

Finckel and Wu’s performance legacy at the college is extensive; Finckel first performed at Middlebury as a part of the Emerson String Quartet in 1981, and returned with Wu in 1984, marking their college debut as a couple. Their performance on Friday, Feb. 28, was Finckel’s 40th appearance on a Middlebury stage. 

Friday’s program spanned different musical periods. The concert began with Beethoven’s Sonata no. 3 in A Major for Cello and Piano, op. 69 — a piece that Wu later discussed in-depth, acknowledging the equality between the cello and piano in its composition. Transitioning to the 20th century, the second selection of the night was another sonata: Claude Debussy’s Sonata for Cello and Piano. The chase-like quality of the second movement stood in stark contrast to the first “Prologue” movement. The couple’s onstage awareness of one another and emotive playing highlighted the dynamacy of sound in the piece.

The final piece before intermission was composed by Pierre Jalbert, a contemporary composer based in Houston. The college commissioned Jalbert for this special performance to honor both the Performing Arts Series centennial and the talents of Finckel and Wu. Friday marked the world premier of this piece of music. An 18-minute composition, “Ephemeral Objects” consisted of seven movements, each expressing and exploring a different aspect of musical language and history. The result was effective and successful as it rendered introspective juxtapositions. The movements may also be performed individually. 

The New York Times described Finckel and Wu’s performances as “eloquent and deeply committed. He played with a deep and burnished tone and she with a sparking virtuosity. Best of all was how keenly they listened to each other.”

Following intermission, Finckel and Wu performed works by Mendelssohn and Chopin. Though the two composers were contemporaries, the evening selections elicited very different emotions as Mendelssohn’s “Lied ohne Worte” (Song without words) was poetic and fluid; while Chopin’s Sonata in G Minor for Cello and Piano had more dramatic undertones. 

Robison Concert Hall’s excellent acoustics and intimate design, coupled with Finckel and Wu’s onstage chemistry, created an audience-wide sense of awe as the notes of each of the five selections pierced and soared with the control of the performers. Met with a standing ovation, the couple returned to the Robison Concert Hall stage for a short encore before joining patrons at the post-concert reception.