Been listening a lot to a CD of music for cello and piano by Edwin Finckel lately. Finckel (1917-2001) is one of those composers who seemed to fall through the cracks in the mid-20th century. He studied with Otto Luening and George Antheil, had a productive career in jazz piano and arranging, working with such greats as Sarah Vaughn, Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich and many others. He took a shot at Hollywood, but quickly realized the lifestyle didn’t suit him. He wasn’t really cut from academic cloth, so university positions weren’t an option. In his mid-30s, he settled with his wife and son in New Jersey, becoming music director of Far Brook, an arts-based private school, which gave him leeway to teach children as he saw fit. He composed music for beginners through advanced students, teaching many of the instruments himself, and conducting the chorus and orchestra. As time went on, he received more and more professional opportunities as a composer, which accounts for many of the works on this recording.
The music on this disk was all written or arranged for his son, David. One can hear traces of Hindemith and Poulenc, and his stated influences Rachmaninoff and Milhaud, but the main impression is of a 20th century American Neo-Romantic, with a gift for melody that harkens back to Tin Pan Alley. In a way, it makes more sense to discuss his music in terms of his Jewish-Irish parentage than specifically musical influences. There is a defiant, tender sweetness surfacing recurrently that one seldom finds in composers of his generation.
The suite from his ballet “Of Human Kindness” stands out particularly for its expressive and technical range. From the first movement’s stentorian phrases, to the haunting cantilena in the second movement, to the irrepressible vitality of the finale, this music is gripping throughout. Most remarkably, there isn’t a phrase in this 30-minute work that doesn’t sound just right, technically and artistically.
Most of the rest of the disk is taken up with charming and intriguing miniatures. To conclude, there is a lovely set of variations on “Willow Weep for Me” that recalls the 19th-century practice of composing virtuosic variations on popular themes.
The performers on this disk are the composer’s son, David Finckel – founding member of the Emerson Quartet – and his wife, pianist Wu Han. The performances have that wonderful alchemy that only occurs when you have artists of the highest rank who have a deep, personal connection to the music they are playing.
Speaking of personal connections, I have one of my own – Edwin Finckel was the first composer I met, when I was 14 years old. He ran a summer music camp for kids on Lake Dunmore in Vermont. He gave me my first composition lessons, and he set a lasting example of how a composer works and thinks. More than 30 years later, I can still hear his quirky, understated quips and gentle encouragements.
That summer camp was also where I first heard pieces like Xenakis’s “Kottos,” which was brand new at the time, and a piece for cello quartet and narrator that I believe was by one of Ed’s nephews, a successful cellist himself. The piece blew me away – it was written for a friend who’d had a stroke and could hardly speak – his performance of the narration was both nightmarish and unbearably beautiful.