Wu Han, 2016 Simple Gifts: The CMS of Lincoln Center at Shaker Village
"When Live from Lincoln Center came to us and said can we do something special and what are you guys up to at the Chamber Music Society? We described many projects to them — including the Korean chamber music school and our touring in Europe. But when we described the Shaker Village, it was like an 'Aha!' moment for everyone." And that's how this historic moment in American history was captured. Simple Gifts: The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center at Shaker Village became a powerful film for television by Live From Lincoln Center, as well as a moving recording which was recently released.
Pianist Wu Han along with her husband, cellist David Finckel, serve as artistic directors for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. When David first came to her with the idea to make music in a tobacco barn in the heart of Shaker village of Pleasant Hill in Kentucky, Wu Han was a bit skeptical. "I thought David went out of his mind!" she says. "But when we started to look at Shaker Village, which is 3,500 acres of pristine land, and what Shaker Village represents in American history, in the spiritual world, we found, 'Wow, this is really something quite special.' It's a magical place, it's a place where people search for a renewal of spirit, it's a huge statement for American history and what we represent. The Shaker spirit is so important."
Aaron Copland captures that Shaker spirit brilliantly in his iconic ballet, "Appalachian Spring," which had never before been performed in an authentic Shaker village. "They said, 'Let's go see if we can film this particular project' and 'What music would you like to play?' And of course immediately we said, 'Simple Gifts,' the Shaker tune and everybody said what a great idea and 'Simple Gifts' was arranged for Martha Graham by Aaron Copland, and there's a 13-instrument arrangement which is perfect for chamber music. So we built a whole program around the 'Simple Gifts' idea for this CD and TV documentary. So the program what we have designed, it's very Americana, it's everything that America represents and everything that is attractive for the foreigner about America."
I was struck by the full, rich sound of this chamber setting. "Absolutely, it's the original intention," Wu says. "The richness actually coming from great players. If you watch the film you will notice the intense communication between the musicians. It's not easy to have 13 people all play the downbeat together so the leadership is very important, the supporting roles are very important and you will watch the leadership shift over 13 people. So it's a very complicated operation. These musicians are first class musicians. I was moved by the performance."
Dvořák's Sonatina in G Major for Violin and Piano features Wu Han with French violinist Arnaud Sussmann. It was written originally for two of the composer's six children, but Wu Han says the technical demands are quite high. "The sonata especially in the slow movement at one point was one of the most played encore pieces," she explains. "It's a tune that apparently Dvořák heard either from the African American community or from the Indian melody … it's called Lament and it's so beautiful. It really just wants to make you cry. The legend is that he wrote the melody on his shirt sleeves while he was visiting Minnesota, [at] Minnehaha Falls, and he got so excited. And I would love to have those shirt sleeves as a manuscript to see what he wrote down."
According to Wu Han, a tobacco barn was the perfect setting for "F.C's Jig for Violin and Viola." It was written by fiddler Mark O'Connor. "Yes, Arnold Sussmann — my French violinist, who came to the U.S. in his teens to study with Itzhak Perlman — his partner in crime in this piece is Paul Neubauer, really one of the best violists in our generation," Wu Han says. "No question. In the U.S., he's legend among violists. This particular jig is written coming from Mark O'Connor's concerto and it's a jig. It requires fiddling. Now, sort of besides great chops you have to have a loose approach to the violin and both musicians know how to play the fiddling. It's a dance in a barn."
Looking back, Wu Han says the entire weekend at Shaker Village with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center was life-changing. And, it was all encapsulated when they began to play that familiar, simple tune from Copland's ballet. "When that 'Simple Gifts' tune came on, on the stage, I can see people just teared up. With that piece of music, you feel like the Shaker ghost is with you. The clarinet soared — and everybody just had smiles coming … and so many people hugged me after the concert, to tell me how touched they were, what that means to them, to have the experience of hearing the tune in the Shaker barn. For me, that particular moment was so important. There are so few moments in our lives that we share special memories you feel you accomplish something that together with your community that it touches your heart, that it changes your mind about what we can accomplish together, that really means something, that really remind you what's important in life and what's important for our society."
The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, impacting lives, with "Simple Gifts" at Shaker Village.
Listen to an extended New Classical Tracks conversation with Wu Han; find it wherever you get your podcasts.
ResourcesChamber Music Society of Lincoln Center - official site
David Finckel and Wu Han - official site
Shaker Village - official site