Listening to Resilience in Schubert and Beyond


Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center opened its 2022-23 season on October 16 with Soloists in the spotlight at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall. Under the theme of “resilience”, artistic directors David Finckel and Wu Han have programmed a dynamic season inspired by the subject of the upcoming Winter Festival, Franz Schubert.

Read on as Finckel and Han share some of their thoughts on upcoming Chamber Music Society concerts.

Nicky Swett: How do you choose the music for the concerts in a season?
David Finkel: We can look at our repertoire through an almost infinite variety of perspectives. Our season opening is Soloists in the spotlight, which showcases instrumental virtuosity. Or in April, there is a concert with wind and string combos that highlight the relationship and dialogue between these two instrumental families. Often we do composer duo programs, like the one this season with Brahms and Arensky. When you bring two composers together, relationships are born between their music and their lives, and certain connections are formed in the mind of the listener. We also have an ensemble perspective, with concerts dedicated to a particular group, and we have geographical focuses, such as the “Voices of the Americas” program, which travels the American continent.

One of the first things we focused on when we started presenting is how to organize this vast literature so that it inspires confidence in listeners who will then say “I can relate to this. Now I know a little more about that person, or that kind of music.

NS: How does the Rose Studio intimate concert lineup differ from the main season lineup?
Wuhan: The Rose series is wonderful to program because it imposes opportunities for discovery. It’s a bit more like going to an art gallery than going to a concert. When you go to an art gallery, you don’t know exactly what you’re going to see. In the Rose series, you can listen to music that you may have never heard in a big concert hall.

Artistic variety is important, surprise is important, contrast is very important. We will hear the Brahms B major Piano Trio next to the Horn Trio by György Ligeti, written as a “Tribute to Brahms”, which is a huge contrast. You will hear a very interesting work by Benjamin Britten entitled Of them Bug Rooms for oboe and piano. He wrote a lot of fantastic little plays when he was young. You will also hear Florence Price’s very pioneering Piano Quintet in A minor, a work full of emotion and ingenuity, which is rapidly gaining ground on concert stages today.

The Orion String Quartet performs Purcell, Bach, Bartók and Mozart on November 20, 2022.
Tristan Cook

NS: CMS’s 22-23 season theme, “resilience,” is inspired by the Winter Festival, which focuses on Franz Schubert. How do the composers heard throughout the season display this quality in their biographies and in their music?
FD: When we select a subject for our Winter Festival, we always look at the rest of the season to see if there is any resonance of this idea in other programs. This season, we asked ourselves what composers could have in common with Schubert in his life or his music. Indeed, Schubert’s considerable obstacles – and his ability not only to continue to compose despite those obstacles, but in fact to turn them to his artistic advantage – are reflected in many different ways in the lives of many other composers this season.

Prokofiev faced oppression from the Soviet regime. Schulhoff was imprisoned by the Nazis and eventually died of illness in a concentration camp. Bach had an exhausting workload on his shoulders that almost never stopped. Beach was against her husband, who did not allow her to pursue the career she deserved. Mozart survived the life of a child prodigy with an overbearing father. Britten had a highly visible songwriting career as a gay man in a country where homosexuality was illegal at the time. Coleridge-Taylor must have found success as a black man in a historically white profession. These are all experiences that required incredible resilience.

Whether you can hear the resilience in the music of these composers is a much trickier question. With Schubert, what has always impressed me is the vocal quality. His uncanny, instinctive ability to create perfect vocal lines means the emotional side of his music is always on display. Through her comes the hope, pain and love he felt throughout his life. And you don’t have to scratch very deeply at the surface to hear the resilience of other composers in different ways. They gave us beautiful music in difficult circumstances, and aren’t we lucky to hear it!

Soprano Joélle Harvey sings Schubert in the “From Song” program on February 10 and 12, 2023.
Tristan Cook

NS: What did you want to communicate about Schubert through the programming of your Winter Festival?
WH: In 1822, Schubert contracted syphilis, which was a death sentence at the time. He was a young man with all that ambition, waking up to the fact that he didn’t want to be known just for small pieces like songs and miniatures. To leave a lasting legacy and be more on par with other renowned composers, he needed to write larger-scale compositions such as symphonies, operas, and substantial chamber works. We wanted to show how Schubert forced himself to become a mature composer before his time. He was writing music in his late twenties with the kind of sophistication and depth that artists don’t typically achieve until their fifties and sixties. He had a self-accelerating maturity like no one else.

On the “Grand Statements” program, we hear massive pieces – the String Quartet in G major, the Piano Sonata in B flat. It is about Schubert in the late 1820s making huge statements, as opposed to the smaller pieces written for amateurs to play at home, which had previously brought him the bulk of his income.

A program called “From Song”, which features songs followed by instrumental pieces in which he used those songs, highlights his vocal sensibility.

Schubert didn’t play the violin nor was he an accomplished pianist, but he was so good at writing for the instruments – really virtuosic stuff. “The Virtuoso Tradition” shows Schubert at the height of instrumental skills.

FD: The “Into Eternity” program combines Op. 135 Schubert quartet and song cycle Winterreise, each work a final statement. Beethoven’s last quartet is whimsical, philosophical and the end is very triumphant. Meanwhile, at the end of Müller’s Schubert setting winter travel poems, it becomes clear that the composer writes autobiographically, in desperation. Hearing these different visions of the end of life is very powerful.

Finally, the “Schubert Forever” concert explores how Schubert’s philosophy can be heard in the work of 20th and 21st century composers. Schubert died without having heard many of his greatest pieces ever performed. As his work is discovered throughout the 19th century, it seems that he is composing from the grave. This feeling of living Schubert is awakened when we listen to the music of composers like Korngold or Harbison, who owe him this unmistakable vocal sensitivity.

Cellist, writer, and music researcher Nicky Swett is a program annotator and editorial associate at the Chamber Music Society at Lincoln Center.


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