Cellist David Finckel on His Lineup of Instruments that Serve the Music

One of today’s most influential classical musicians, cellist David Finckel, is a busy man. His successful and long-standing career as performer, recording artist, teacher, and arts advocate has included a wealth of solo performances, duo recitals with his wife, pianist Wu Han, and 40-plus years with the Grammy Award–winning Emerson String Quartet. Add to his resume the internet-based—and the classical-music world’s first musician-directed—recording company ArtistLed and his and Han’s chamber-music festival Music@Menlo, and it is a wonder Finckel has time for anything but music making.

Fortunately he was able to share some behind-the-scenes info with us about his favorite cello and gear after a three-night stint at the Shanghai Concert Hall in China.

—Heather K. Scott

Tell us about your instrument(s).

My primary cello was made by Samuel Zygmuntowicz in 1993, but I also use cellos made by William Harris Lee (Chicago), Yanbing Chen (Cleveland Violins), and G.B. Guadagnini (Milan, 1754). All my instruments are different and I use them for special repertoire and occasions as needed. They are all in great condition. (I take great care of them.)

My primary bow is made by Ole Kanestrom, and I also use a selection of carbon-fiber bows by Cleveland Violins.

What gift does your primary instrument bring to your playing that can’t be found in any other instrument?

The “gift” that my instrument brings to my playing is simply that it’s mine and I can set it up and choose to use it or others at my discretion. Every instrument has its own voice, which can’t be duplicated—like the human voice.


So, I suppose one could say that this is a “gift” that it offers to me.

What do you know about its history and the other people who have played it?

My cello was made for me, and no one else has played it. (I commissioned it.) I can tell you that it was copied from the 1711 “Duport” Stradivari.

What drew you to this instrument?

I heard a violin by Zygmuntowicz in 1987, which I thought for sure was a Strad. I decided to commission him on the spot.

What is your instrument’s personalityand temperament like? Does it remind you of any one or any thing?

My Zygmuntowicz’ job is to serve me and help me serve the music. I don’t want it to have much of its own personality. I need it to change to suit my needs and what the composer is asking for. It needs to be able to sound French, German, Russian, whatever.

I regard it as a tool, and in that sense, it doesn’t remind me of anyone but instead reminds me more and more of the best automobiles (like my Tesla X 75D).

Does it perform better in certain situations?

Certainly even the greatest instruments will sound better in better acoustics. My cello is not so sensitive to climate and temperature that its quality and performance are compromised beyond what I can deal with.

My instruments all have big sounds and project well in large halls. In addition to quality, I have been forced to constantly look for projection as a requirement for my performance situations and especially repertoire, even in chamber music.

What are its strengths and limitations?

Every instrument is limited in how loud it can play. If I could have an instrument that projected even more, I’d be happy, but for now my Zygmuntowicz offers me the range of color and projection that enables me to serve the music to my satisfaction and the public to theirs.

If given the ability, what would your instrument say to you if the two of you sat down for tea?

If my cello had tea with me, I would hope that it would thank me for carrying it around the world and onto great stages, and for buying it a seat in business class.