Wu Han Plays Tchaikovsky, Month by Month

Watch Wu Han play the barcarolle called "June," from Tchaikovsky's The Seasons.closemore
Watch Wu Han play the barcarolle called "June," from Tchaikovsky's The Seasons.

You've got to love Wu Han. I've been lucky to work with her on several projects, so I've seen her in many roles: solo pianist, chamber musician, teacher, lecturer, administrator, producer, mother. In every situation, in every interaction — whether she's chairing a meeting of hardnosed New York power brokers or entertaining a room full of her daughter's 12-year-old friends — Wu Han possesses a disarming combination of discipline and tenderness, always leavened by her matchless sense of style.

You can hear this all the way through our conversation about Tchaikovsky's Seasons. In her playing, first of all — so elegant and powerful, with a fluidity and a sense of effortless grace that only comes from years of concentrated practice. In the slight pause she might take before repeating a phrase: It's only half a heartbeat, but it shifts and opens the music into a gentle warmth.

Wu Han said that this collection of pieces by Tchaikovsky "went straight into my heart." I've heard Tchaikovsky's Seasons played by dozens of pianists, and they never made much of a dent in my heart — until this conversation with Wu Han, and until I heard her her play them. It's the same notes everyone else plays, but in her conversation and performance, she animated them and brought out their stories and charm in a way I'd never experienced.

About Tchaikovsky's Seasons

Composers find inspiration for writing music from not only lofty places, but also mundane ones. Bach wrote much of his music for "the greater glory of God," but Tchaikovsky churned out The Seasons piecemeal as a monthly column for a St. Petersburg periodical.

"I continue to bake musical pancakes," Tchaikovsky reportedly joked to a friend. "Today, I tossed the tenth."

In 1875, an editor named N.M. Bernard approached Tchaikovsky with the idea of writing 12 short piano pieces, one to be published each month in his magazine Nouvelliste. Tchaikovsky titled his pieces after the 12 months of the year — each a calendar snapshot, accompanied by a more descriptive subtitle and a short verse of poetry.

Although Tchaikovsky is not known for his solo piano music, several of his Seasons became popular, especially the gently rocking barcarolle he wrote for the month of June. Short, salon-like piano pieces were in vogue at the time, and were a potentially viable source of income for the cash-strapped Tchaikovsky. At this point in his career, he had yet to become a big-name composer ,and he hadn't yet encountered his fabulously wealthy benefactor Nadezhda von Meck.

Mother and Daughter at Play

Pianist Wu Han's initial inspiration to play The Seasons came from a mother's desire to connect with her daughter on a musical level.

"I learned these pieces actually for our daughter, Lilian. She was at that time about 7 or 8, at that tender age, and I wanted to introduce her to music. But sometimes a Beethoven sonata, as beautiful as it is, is not as fun for a 7-year-old. So I looked for these miniature descriptive pieces to play for her, and she loved them. She got so excited, she started to create dances around these pieces. Using my scarves, she would become an imaginary snowflake, a team of horses, or the flames of a warm fire in wintertime."

Through Lilian, Wu Han herself fell in love with Tchaikovsky's music all over again, and decided to record the music as a permanent document of the wonderful times she's had with her daughter. She was also eager to bring the music into the NPR studio and share it with radio and Internet audiences around the world.

About Wu Han

Wu Han began studying music at age 9, quickly accumulating top prizes at major competitions in her native Taiwan. She came to the U.S. to participate at the Marlboro Music Festival for two summers, and studied with Rudolf Serkin and Menahem Pressler.

Along with her husband David Finckel (cellist for the Emerson String Quartet), Wu Han leads a multifaceted career. She's a concert pianist, recording artist, music administrator and educator, and cultural entrepreneur. Wu Han and Finckel direct the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and are the founders and artistic directors of Music@Menlo, a chamber music festival in Silicon Valley. And, when they're not on the road as soloists or as a duo, they also run the CD production company Artistled, the first musician-directed and Web-based recording company, now in its 10th year.

Listen to the previous Favorite Session, or see our full archive.

Copyright NPR 2016.


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