In David’s words
When the final exuberant chords of Dvorák’s Quintet reverberated in the hall at Menlo-Atherton, the twelfth season of Music@Menlo had seemed to go by so quickly that we couldn’t believe it was really over. When one is as busy as Wu Han and I are during the Festival, days blur from one to the next, the sense of time passing is suspended, and suddenly it’s all over. In some ways, it seems like yesterday that we greeted the 44 young musicians attending the Chamber Music Institute, and yet, it also seems like a year ago that they bravely launched into their first assignments.
As is always our practice at Music@Menlo, we delved deeply into music through a particular lens, which was, this summer, the life and world of the great Czech composer Antonín Dvorák. The ways in which we explore music at the Festival always provide the richest and most meaningful contexts in which to experience the works of great composers, and for Dvorák, who was so widely regarded and well-traveled during his life, we decided to focus this lens very widely, to include the composers and cultures of Dvorák’s neighbors in Hungary, Romania, Germany and Austria. Included among those composers were Dvorák’s musical ancestors, contemporaries and descendants, all of who could be connected to Dvorák. Among them were: Johannes Brahms, Dvorák’s mentor and advocate from Vienna; Franz Schubert, also from Vienna, whose music inspired many of Dvorák’s compositions; Beethoven, who set a lofty example for Dvorák of what it meant to be a true artist; Leoš Janácek, the great 20th century descendant of Dvorák’s tradition who translated the Romantic era’s passion into modern musical language; and Erwin Schulhoff, a Czech composer of enormous talent and promise, encouraged to pursue a career as a young boy by Dvorák himself, who needlessly perished in a Nazi concentration camp in 1942.
Without exaggeration, hardly a moment passes during these three weeks that is not in some way very special, very memorable, and very important to the life and character of the festival.
Some of my favorite recurring festival moments include: the daily morning meeting of all the Chamber Music Institute students and faculty, during which the day’s events are described and anticipated in exciting detail; sitting in the recording booth with our brilliant producer Da-Hong Seetoo as he listens with phenomenal concentration to a performance being captured for Music@Menlo Live, our in-house recording label; lunch with students, faculty, performers and friends on the beautiful campus of Menlo School, our host and partner; a concert in Menlo School’s Stent Family Hall, one of the most beautiful rooms imaginable in which to hear chamber music; attending a Café Conversation during which our visiting performers often unveil and share with us a wide selection of their projects, passions and experiences; watching both Young Performers and International Performers rise to new heights of poise, precision and artistry in performances; welcoming an exciting selection of artists every summer who are making their Music@Menlo debuts, and seeing our audience delight in newly-discovered talent and festival friends; and the list goes on and on.
Our Institute, which had its beginnings from the Festival’s very first year, has grown to serve an ever-wider range of students from the Bay Area and all over the world. We made a great effort this year to find ways to house students from afar, and this has opened up the possibility of bringing literally the best young musicians the world has to offer right into our mix, benefitting not only our voracious listeners, but the top young local talent, whose experience and standards are raised as they make music with new colleagues truly on their level. In addition, we’ve grown and developed our Chamber Music Institute faculty, and assigned each Institute component a director who oversees the activities of all the students. We now not only can say that we are offering young musicians an incomparable experience – which has always been the case – but also that we are increasingly able to make the Music@Menlo experience practical and affordable for the most deserving and eager young musicians of today.
The Chamber Music Institute programs provide both no-cost performances to our community and invaluable chances for the young chamber musicians of future to play music and to host concerts in a thoroughly professional way. The daily coachings, the many master classes, all that the students absorb through attending the main-stage concerts and other performances, plus the Encounters and Café Conversations, all add up to an incomparable educational experience.
The impact of Music@Menlo on these young musicians is no better evidenced than at the Institute’s concluding concerts. The meticulous and passionate performances, the cheering of the packed house, and the many tears and hugs, onstage and off, make us as proud to be a part of this program as anything we do. A look at the following collection of photos can only begin to provide a true picture of what the Music@Menlo Chamber Music Institute is capable of providing to the deserving young musicians who represent the future of the art.
CMI coaches Dmitri Atapine, Hyeyeon Park, Gloria Chien, Sunmi Chang, Sean Lee, Nicolas Dautricourt
The 2014 festival began as most of our festivals have, with an initial Encounter that provides an overview of the festival and an in-depth look at the subject at hand. Perfectly suited for that mission was musicologist David Beveridge, a Dvorák expert, who made the journey all the way from Prague (where he lives and where we first met) to give us background and context on Dvorák and his world. David traced the incredible line of Dvorák’s career, from the son of simple butcher in a small Bohemian village to a composer of world renown. Included in the Encounter was a thorough geography lesson (something we can all use when talking about Middle Europe) and a fascinating examination of Dvorák’s compositional techniques, with musical examples provided by violinists Erin Keefe and Kristin Lee, violist Paul Neubauer, cellist Dmitri Atapine and bassist Scott Pingel.
Each Music@Menlo festival is anchored by a series of main concert programs that outline the festival’s theme. During our first festival in 2003, there were five of them, but that number has swelled on occasion to eight, which was the case this year. The eight programs, most of which were performed twice, were buttressed by many other events, among them the four Carte Blanche concerts and four Encounters, making the Festival a more-or-less wall-to-wall musical experience over three weeks.
“Around Dvorák” traced Dvorák’s life not only from the perspective of his own music but also that of his neighbors past, present and future. The first program, “Dvorák in Context” began with music by Mozart, one of Dvorák’s most inspiring predecessors from nearby Vienna, and concluded with music by a powerful descendant of Dvorák’s folkloric tradition, Béla Bartók. In Mozart’s Serenata Notturna, Wu Han made her Festival debut as timpanist, and a crackerjack ensemble composed of the Escher and Danish Quartets, plus individuals, gave a definitive performance of Bartók’s Divertimento.
Our second main-stage concert program, “Viennese Roots”, paid tribute to the effect of the great classical composers on Dvorák, whose expert craftsmanship gave structure and integrity to his passionate, nationalistic and folk-inspired works. Included on the program were two works of Schubert (about whom Dvorák wrote a learned article), his A-flat Impromptu performed with depth and mastery by Gilbert Kalish, and his flashy Rondo Brilliant for violin and piano, played with lyricism and panache by violinist Sean Lee and pianist Gloria Chien. The program opened with a sparkling trio by Haydn, which gave me chance to sneak on stage with Gloria and the marvelous violinist Kristin Lee, with whom I had the pleasure to play many concerts last season on tour with the Chamber Music Society, all across America, in Germany at the Dresden Festival, and on the CMS cruise in June from Venice to Dubrovnik.
Interspersed with our main concert programs and Encounters is another concert series called Carte Blanche, in which Wu Han and I invite extraordinary performers to design and perform programs of their own invention. This series, inaugurated in the festival’s second season, has had an amazing history, and this year’s offerings lived up to the series’ high standard of creativity and excitement. The first program of this year’s Carte Blanche series was performed by the Escher Quartet, simply one of the finest string quartets of now or any age, and they used both their incomparable virtuosity and impeccable traditional string playing style to render, in a single evening, all four quartets by Alexander von Zemlinsky. I daresay that, without having played these quartets myself, it seems to be feat of technique, concentration and stamina that far outweighs playing Bartók’s six quartets in one concert (something I am well-qualified to talk about). The Escher Quartet astounded the over-sold hall with as thrilling a quartet performance as I have heard anywhere, and their two-hour and forty-five minute concert was rewarded with cheers and a hearty meal (in the Music@Menlo tradition).
The main stage concerts continued with a program dedicated to the patronage of the seventh Prince Lobkowicz, Josef Franz Maximilian, a Bohemian nobleman who became the stand-out arts supporter of his family through his commissions and dedications from Haydn and Beethoven. A great lover of chamber music, especially string quartets, this prince kept a house orchestra from which could be formed smaller ensembles, and he enjoyed music in his many castles and palaces, from downtown Vienna to the idyllic Bohemian countryside.
The focus on the Lobkowicz family’s contribution to chamber music was heightened by the presence of today’s heir to the Lobkowicz properties, possession and legacy, William Lobkowicz, who was accompanied on his visit by his wife and three children.
William shared the incredible history of his family during an Encounter, and, in his honor, we resurrected a string quartet composed by the seventh prince’s house composer and orchestra leader, the Czech violinist Antonin Vranicky. William and Sandra listened from the side of the stage, and our quartet, formed with violinist Sean Lee, International Performers Becky Anderson and Cong Wu, and me on cello, was given official permission, upon request and on the spot, to call itself the New Lobkowicz Quartet (neither I nor many of my friends could quite believe I was back in a string quartet so soon – much less forming a new one!).
The main-stage concert program that honored the Lobkowicz family was composed entirely of works commissioned by the Seventh Prince: Haydn’s Quartet Op. 77 No. 2, and by Beethoven, the string quartets Op. 18 No. 1 and Op. 74,“Harp”, plus the song cycle “An die Ferne Geliebte”. Performing for us were Gilbert Kalish and the compelling baritone Randall Scarlata, and the popular Danish String Quartet, justifiably renowned both for the depth of their performances and the wildness of their hair.
The second concert in the Carte Blanche series was something of a double Carte Blanche, as the legendary Brazilian piano virtuoso Arnaldo Cohen has long been admired by Wu Han, who saw this summer’s programming line up with Arnaldo’s specialties, making it the perfect season to introduce this great pianist to the Menlo community in a single recital. His adventurous program paid tribute to the festival’s theme at every turn, traversing Bach-Busoni, Handel-Brahms, Liszt and Chopin, all delivered with apparent ease in show-stopping style, and all before lunch at that. Our audience warmly welcomed a completely new artist, and we have been asked again and again when he will return.
As we had focused on Beethoven so thoroughly through the Lobkowicz concert program, we decided to detour further in Beethoven’s world in concert program four, titled “Beethoven’s Friends”, by performing his music in the company of music by his famous friends and colleagues. Moreover, Anton Reicha was of Czech descent, and Johann Nepomuk Hummel was born in Hungary, so they were certainly well-qualified for Around Dvorák status. Their music was a discovery for many in our already-well-educated audience, which enjoyed these performances featuring both piano and winds.
Our third Carte Blanche concert was put in the hands of the estimable violinist Yura Lee, who cooked up (she’s a great cook as well so that’s apt to say) a program that one is likely going to hear nowhere else unless it’s Yura and her pianist Dina Vainshtein playing. Their program whole-heartedly served our season theme, ranging from the extraordinary Impressions d’enfance (Impressions of Childhood) by Georges Enescu, to Bartók’s essential Sonata no. 1 for violin and piano, with Dvorák, Suk and Hubay thrown in between. Yura played with her signature intensity and magical technical accuracy, and all left the hall amazed at both the music and performers.
In Concert Program five, titled “American Visions”, we followed Dvorák all the way to America, where he spent the years 1892-95 heading the National Conservatory in New York City. To document his experience in and effect on American musical culture, we created a sequence of music that told something of a story. Beginning with a rousing performance by Gilles Vonsattel of Gottschalk’s The Union, a medley of American popular songs coupled with ingenious, parlor-trick sound effects, the jovial piece became the perfect setup for Dvorák’s cheerful and quintessentially American-sounding Sonatina in G Major for violin and piano, composed during his stay, and performed for us by Wu Han and violinist Arnaud Sussmann.
The happy mood Dvorák created was then carried on by the first song in a set by the American maverick Charles Ives, and as Randall Scarlata and Gilbert Kalish moved from song to song, the music of Ives became more and more mystical and unsettling. This was exactly what we had hoped for, as we needed to set the mood for us all to experience the phenomenal American Songbook II: A Journey beyond Time, by contemporary legend George Crumb.
Joining us for the Crumb were Gilbert Kalish (without a doubt, the leading interpreter of Crumb’s music), Randall Scarlata, and percussionists Ayano Kataoka, Ian Rosenbaum, Chris Froh and Florian Conzetti. One can see from the photo below that to say they had their hands full would be a true understatement.
The concert’s impact was mesmerizing and powerful. Nothing in the festival could have made us prouder than the virtuosity and versatility of our incredible collection of performers that night, nor the sight of a packed audience on its feet screaming bravo’s at the conclusion of a truly adventurous program.
During the next main stage program, titled “Transitions”, we explored where music went in the wake of Dvorák’s Romantic age, seeking palpable connections between the music of the nineteenth century and modern times. Wu Han opened the program alone with Brahms’s late Intermezzi, Op. 118, which she described as the most intimate music of the festival, and also some of the most forward-looking of the late Romantic era.
Cellist Dmitri Atapine and pianist Hyeyeon Park then performed a selection of works by the Second Viennese School composer Anton Webern that perfectly documented the transition from the tonal to the atonal age. Webern’s first two pieces, composed in 1899, sound much like the Brahms that Wu Han had just finished, but his second set of three pieces, composed fifteen years later, are completely without key centers, and derive their hyper-romantic, expressionist emotion through both overt and suggestive musical gestures, as well as extreme dynamic levels. Our exceptional performers – both faculty of the Chamber Music Institute as well as graduates of the International Performers program – made the works truly their own, as they moved between all five pieces without a break, playing both cello and piano parts from memory. It was a highlight of the festival for me and Wu Han to watch another cello-piano duo take over such repertoire with expertise, dedication, and captivating charisma.
Also on the program was the Concertino by Dvorák’s musical descendant Leoš Janácek, a work that shows the colorful Czech folk idiom in full twentieth-century bloom.
The final concert in the festival’s Carte Blanche series was entrusted to the powerhouse pianist Gilles Vonsattel, who made his Music@Menlo debut last season in a blazing performance of the Franck Quintet. His program for this festival centered on the ideas of nationalism and revolution, two social phenomena that were strongly present throughout Europe during Dvorák’s lifetime. He began with two works by history’s greatest revolutionary composer, Beethoven, and both the sad stillness and bursting anger of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata were duly echoed in the work that followed, Liszt’s Funerailles. After an intermission during which all the pianists in the room said that they had better go practice, Gilles returned to perform one of the most beautiful pieces of Janácek that I have ever heard, his Sonata 1.X.1905 which mourns the death of a young Czech student, killed by pro-German forces while demonstrating for the building of Czech-speaking university. Saint-Saëns’s Africa followed, a wild, tour-de-force for the piano inspired by the composer’s trip to Egypt and Algeria. The recital concluded with Fredric Rzewski’s 1979 work titled Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, and inspired by the poem of an anonymous cotton mill worker describing the mill’s harsh conditions, written in 1880. Gilles’s phenomenal performance of this mind-twisting work, all from memory like the rest of his recital, left all of us cheering and shaking our heads in disbelief. From Beethoven’s sophisticated late Bagatelles to Rzewski’s pictorial, jazz-infused tone poem, Gilles had covered all the bases, basically hitting it out of the park.
Along the way, Encounter Leader Michael Parloff returned for his third consecutive Music@Menlo appearance to enlighten us on late nineteenth and early twentieth century’s composers who delved into the folk music of their native lands. As usual, Michael came prepared with a veritable galaxy of images, recordings, videos and information, streamed together seamlessly, which added up to one of the finest lectures on music that we’ve heard anywhere.
We would have neglected a great opportunity had we not devoted an entire evening – our seventh concert program titled “Hungarica” – to the music of Dvorák’s great neighboring country, Hungary. In doing so, we proudly brought to the stage a spectacular collection of performers, some of them new to Menlo this season (cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan and violinists Nicolas Dautricourt and Alexander Sitkovetsky). Joining them were more recent additions to our main stage roster (violinist Benjamin Beilman and pianist Gloria Chien) as well as Music@Menlo veterans: violinist Jorja Fleezanis, violist Paul Neubauer, and, for good measure, Wu Han and me. The rather wild program included music by Liszt, Ligeti, Bartók, Kodály, and Dohnányi, all of it invigorating to play and hear.
Prior to our concluding performances, Encounter Leader Ara Guzelimian returned to confront a subject that few could with such passion and sensitivity: the persecution of musicians, artists, and art itself during the eras of Nazism and Communism. The story is no better illustrated than through the Czech lens, as the subjugation of Czechoslovakia by the Nazis meant not only the end of progressive Czech music, but also the negation of the country’s proud heritage, as we had heard about first-hand from William Lobkowicz, whose entire family was forced to flee their homeland twice during the 1930’s and 40’s.
Ara’s brilliantly planned and moving Encounter led us through the era with music composed in Terezín, or Theresienstadt in German, the “show camp” set up by the Nazis to try to convince the outside world that Jews were being humanely treated. Nothing could have been further from the truth, but the only positive outcome of this staged community was that it was necessary to produce art as a sign of social health, and therefore art was allowed and enabled to happen by the monstrously cruel people who ran it. The Encounter included a film clip of the late Alice Herz-Sommer, a pianist who survived Terezín and who performed one hundred and fifty concerts there. She passed away last spring in London at the age of 110, and at 109 she was still practicing the piano some three hours a day. The film made about her, called “The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved my Life” won the Oscar for Best Documentary the week after she died, and is now available to watch on Netflix and can be purchased directly from the producer. In addition, I should mention that our great friend and colleague Daniel Hope recently created and hosted a documentary on Terezín called “Refuge in Music” which has been released by Deutsche Grammophon. Both films are compelling and beautifully told accounts of this sad yet inspiring chapter of human history.
For our eighth and final concert program, “Bridging Dvorák”, we collected a sampling of the festival’s music and ideas, juxtaposing works that, we hoped, would truly summarize the idea of Around Dvorák. Beginning with a work by the acknowledged father of Czech music, Bedrich Smetana, we moved on to the delightful Serenade for string trio by the Hungarian Dohnányi. The centerpiece of this program, however, was undeniably the String Sextet by Erwin Schulhoff, one of the brightest lights of Czech music during the early part of the 20th century. This haunting work, which somehow presages the horrific events of World War II and Schulhoff’s own untimely death, provided our festival with its most powerful link from the colorful, mostly cheerful world that Dvorák knew, to the world of the twentieth century and the one we live in now, with ups and downs of proportions unimaginable during Dvorák’s age.
It would not have been fitting, however, to end such a joyous festival with music as disturbing as the Schulhoff, so we decided to send our listeners off with one of chamber music’s most beloved and often-heard works, Dvorák’s Piano Quintet in A Major. Joining us was pianist Anne-Marie McDermott, who headed a powerful ensemble that brought the audience to its feet, and Music@Menlo 2014 to a glowing conclusion.
In David’s words
We arrived in Aspen on a beautifully sunny Saturday afternoon, excited as always but especially tired: we had left the CMS cruise in Dubrovnik the morning before.
After flights through Zürich, New York, and Denver (with a hectic overnight at home) we somehow made it to Aspen in one piece.
Waiting for us at 7pm that evening were the four ensembles from our Chamber Music Studio. This special program, inaugurated by us last summer, serves four chamber groups comprised of Aspen Festival and School students. The students are selected by us through their festival applications, and each has specifically requested inclusion in our program. Already, this opportunity has become very competitive, and the final choices are tough to make. Once we have selected the players, we group them and assign them their repertoire. The four pianists and four cellists also study with us privately during the program.
Joining us this year were pianists Adria Ye (who was in the program last summer), Carmen Knoll, Hewen Ma and Angie Zhang; violinists Will Hagen (also with us last summer), Julia Choi, Amy Blackburn and Fedor Ouspensky; violist Jossalyn Jensen, and cellists Sarina Zhang (with us last summer as a pianist), Zlatomir Fung, Erik Wheeler and Yin Xiong.
The ensemble of Carmen Knoll, Will Hagen, Jossalyn Jensen and Zlatomir Fung tackled Dvorak’s beloved Piano Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 87, composed in 1889 just before his iconic “Dumky” Trio.
Adria Ye, Amy Blackburn and Sarina Zhang were assigned Brahms’s Trio No. 2 in C major, Op. 87, a robust work demanding full romantic sound coupled with classical style integrity, composed in 1882 when Brahms was forty-nine years old.
Angie Zhang, Fedor Ouspensky and Yin Xiong delved into Beethoven’s Trio in D major Op. 70 No. 1, known as the “Ghost”. This quirky, striking work is the first of Beethoven’s two trios composed in the summer of 1808 and published as Op. 70 in 1809.
Hewen Ma, Julia Choi and Erik Wheeler were assigned Mendelssohn’s Trio No. 2 in c minor, composed in 1845 only two years before his untimely death. It is by far the more technically challenging and emotionally complex of Mendelssohn’s two piano trios.
Our first session that Saturday evening allowed us not only to meet our students in person, but also to hear each group run through their assigned work from beginning to end. The fact that each of them could do so is not only a testament to their collective talent but also to early individual preparation and the three rehearsals each ensemble had had prior to our arrival. We knew, therefore, that the first two lessons of workshop had already taken place: one, always arrive at a chamber music rehearsal with your part learned, and two, solve as many problems as you can before taking your piece to your teacher.
Although every group did well in their first performance for us, we made many mental notes on what each ensemble – and each individual – would need to accomplish in order to bring these great works to higher levels by July 14th, the day of the workshop’s closing concert.
The Festival’s scheduled “chamber blocks” – times during the week when no orchestral rehearsals take place and therefore all students are free for chamber music work – provide no where near enough time for us to work at the level of detail necessary. Our model for this workshop was inspired by our many teaching experiences in the Isaac Stern Chamber Music Encounters, during which ensembles received coachings at least every other day, sometimes lasting for several hours. All the cell phones came out, and group by group, we more or less tripled their expected coaching sessions.
For the groups, it meant a lot more absorption in the pieces, and a fairly constant stream of input from us, often being reminded of habits that needed to be changed. For us, it meant a much greater chance of hearing the results we were determined to achieve, albeit at the expense of hiking, playing tennis, swimming, socializing, and going to concerts – the activities most eager visitors to Aspen enjoy in abundance. But Wu Han and I are simply not made that way, and as these incredibly talented young musicians put themselves in our hands, all our thoughts turned to helping them achieve their best, and to shaping the next great interpretations of their assigned masterpieces of chamber music.
A good life in music, however, should not be devoid of life’s greatest pleasures, and, to that end, we invited our students early on to gather at our condo for Chinese food and a chance to relax and get to know one another.
Wu Han and I also had other obligations, such as an interview on NPR’s Performance Today with our good friend Fred Child, held in the Irving and Joan Harris Concert Hall’s broadcast booth.
We manage to catch up with Fred every six months or so, and there seem to be always new projects to discuss, as well as the music we have our fingers in at the moment. In this interview, Fred asked us probing questions about the essence of chamber music performance. Fred is a great host, perhaps now America’s most familiar radio voice in classical music, and he’s earned that position through a combination of his very personal passion for the arts, his infectious enthusiasm and love of people, and an impressive knowledge of music.
After our talk, we emerged into the glorious Aspen daylight for a portrait next to a babbling stream, in front of a concert hall that carries special meaning for us: I, with the Emerson Quartet, played the first notes in the hall during the summer of 1993 while the hall was still under construction, and Wu Han and I made the first recording in the hall soon after, of the complete Beethoven Sonatas and Variations, for ArtistLed. Moreover, we are fortunate to count Joan Harris and her late husband Irving among our most treasured friends.
In between our closely-scheduled obligations in Aspen we always find time for some fun.
The very first days of our stay in Aspen also included a recital in Harris Concert Hall with violinist Philip Setzer, in which we performed some of our own favorite trio repertoire: Beethoven’s Op. 1 No. 2, Shostakovich’s Trio No. 2 in e minor, and Dvorak’s “Dumky” Trio, works we had been performing extensively during the prior season. It’s always a pleasure to bring our best work to the discriminating Aspen audience, which includes not only astute music lovers but our students and fellow faculty and performers as well.
With that performance past, it was time for us to focus intensively on our young ensembles. We are fortunate to have access to the distinguished faculty of the Aspen Music Festival and School, as well as guest artists, all of whom we invite to contribute their insight and experience in our coachings. This summer, we were joined by violinists Masao Kawasaki, Robert Lipsett and Daniel Hope; violist James Dunham; and pianists Anton Nel and Rita Sloan, and you will see them at a work in many of the following photos.
Each work studied in this workshop poses different challenges, and I’ll go through them one by one, accompanied by photos from our many sessions with each.
Beethoven’s “Ghost” Trio is perhaps his most famous, undoubtedly because of its unforgettable name, which was not Beethoven’s idea but rather somehow got attached to it permanently. It is not inappropriate, however, as the slow movement is one of the most eerie in all of classical music. It is said that Beethoven was considering writing an opera on Shakespeare’s Macbeth at the time, and this seems perfectly plausible.
What makes this trio so difficult to play are the incredible contrasts found within its three movements. Why Beethoven chose to write only three – after having written his Opus 1 trios with four movements each – is a mystery to us, but certainly we feel nothing is missing from this incredible work.
The first movement is Beethoven at his most famously unpredictable: stopping and starting abruptly, alternately raucous and mysterious, jumping from one key to another. One can imagine the great composer totally high on coffee – his most famous addiction – his eyes popping from his head as they seem to do in several famous portraits.
Beethoven demands a special kind of virtuosity of which we went to lengths to explain, and this presents huge challenges for us performers: his music is often composed neither to feel comfortable nor even sound comfortable. We instinctively strive to make music in a natural way, but so often with Beethoven, the dynamic and tempo markings he insists on, let alone the notes themselves, are almost impossible to execute.
But the lesson here is that Beethoven was a composer and a human being for whom struggle and conquering were the essence of life itself. We are convinced that these qualities are what connect his music so powerfully to such a huge audience. I personally find Beethoven the most human of all the composers, the one I can relate to most immediately, and for sure, my first choice to meet if I could journey back to his time.
The slow movement is, for me, one of the most difficult pieces to play in the entire chamber music literature. Some of the hardest works I’ve played – the Bartok String Quartet No. 5, the Korngold Quintet – I promise are easier for me. Not that they are easy, but they are more conquerable than this single page, which looks so simple on paper. Such are the wonders and joys of great music!
The slowness, the tension, the mystery, the frightening outbursts combine to produce a movement of unsurpassed drama. Probably, this movement required as much coaching time as its other two movements combined.
The finale is a joyful race of relentless energy, the strings exchange fragments of melody accompanied by blindingly fast scales, arpeggios and passagework in the piano. Angie Zhang (who during our workshop performed as winner of the festival’s Mozart Concerto competition) performed her demanding part with great virtuosity, supported by lots of attention from Wu Han.
Moving along chronologically, the next piano trio in our program of chamber music masterpieces was Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 2 in c minor, composed when he was thirty-six years of age, six years after he completed his first trio. Like the first trio, this is a turbulent, four movement work that makes enormous demands on the performers.
Mendelssohn was one of history’s most prodigiously gifted musicians. A child prodigy in a class with Mozart, he was composing some of his finest music by the age of sixteen. He played the violin well enough to lead orchestras, mastered ancient languages, knew philosophy and literature well enough to converse with Goethe, was the finest organist of his time, founded the Leipzig Conservatory, and the list goes on. To say that nothing was difficult for Mendelssohn would be something of an understatement.
The enormity of his talent is reflected not only in the genius of his compositions but also in the difficulty of his piano writing. What was probably child’s play for him represents hours and days of patient and methodical work for even the most accomplished pianists of our time. It therefore fell on this trio’s pianist, Hewen Ma, to not only learn her notes thoroughly (which she did) but also figure out how to balance her extreme number of notes with the two string parts, something only the most experienced, sensitive and accomplished pianists can do.
Fortunately, Hewen had two players of tremendous capacity as her partners: violinist Julia Choi and cellist Erik Wheeler. For them, it was a challenge of projecting their parts with passion while at the same time maintaining Mendelssohn’s exquisite sense of taste and respect for classical sensibility (Mendelssohn is considered a true connector of the Classic and Romantic ages in music).
Doing so, for the string players, meant many things: working on sound production, down to the tiniest details of vibrato; ensuring that the fingerings and bowings for literally every note of the work were optimal; knowing how soft one can play when called for; and looking very carefully at the composer’s markings.
It was wonderful to witness how this work grew and blossomed in their hands, from an already-impressive run-through the first day to a glowing, touching interpretation that had the audience on its feet instantly at their final performance.
Next on our program was the Trio No.2 in C major by Johannes Brahms. Brahms composed three piano trios, and, as he never let anything escape his desk that didn’t meet his standards, each one is a true masterpiece of the chamber music literature. The C major – as its key implies – is by far the most joyous and free-spirited among the set.
Our extraordinary ensemble for this trio consisted of Adria Ye, pianist, Amy Blackburn, violinist, and Sarina Zhang, cellist.
It is sometimes said that one has to become of a certain age before being able to play Brahms easily. I do believe that to some degree this is true, especially in the case of a composer whose music embodies the effects of profound life experiences, heavy responsibilities, and in Brahms’s case especially, an uncompromising, un-frivolous nature.
Our young and vivacious trio presented us initially with a fleet-footed, transparent interpretation, which immediately prompted all kinds of visual imagery from us: the enormous, slow-moving, pot-bellied, beer-drinking and sausage-eating Brahms, sitting in Vienna’s famous Prater enjoying the food, the folk music, and enjoying the scenery.
It’s easy to ask people to play faster, slower, louder and softer, and to do all manner of things instrumentally, but unless the musician’s own imagination is engaged, unless a sound or idea is conceived of by them, then the information doesn’t really become a part of them.
This trio had no problem playing the notes, but needed to get themselves into that very special Brahmsian world: his deep connection to Beethoven, his affinity for Hungarian music, his respect for “absolute” music that needs no stories to help it (Brahms never wrote “program” music like Strauss or Liszt).
Yet, this trio has wonderful moments which are carefree and should bring smiles to our faces.
The weight and thickness of the “Brahms tone” (as one might call it) demands special work from both string players and pianists. For pianists, it has a lot to do with posture, voicing and pedaling (as I learned from listening to Wu Han and her pianist colleagues talk). And for the strings, it has much to do with developing a rich, healthy vibrato, and often slowing the bow so as to extract the maximum resonance from the instrument by playing close to the bridge (the “sounding point” in violin language).
But of course, those sound qualities must be in the imagination of the performer in order to happen. Eventually they can happen, once a musician has heard themselves make the right sound enough times to recall and reproduce it.
Brahms also requires special rhythmic integrity: you can’t play his works with the abandon or whimsy required of his mentor Schumann, for example, so one needs to combine for Brahms the strongest structures of the Classical style with the sensuousness of the Romantic era. And we must say: this ensemble totally absorbed what seemed for them to be a new interpretive ethic, so much so that by the time of the performance they truly owned the piece. We were astonished, delighted, and very proud of them.
And finally, our concert ended with the magnificent Piano Quartet in E-flat major by Dvorak. Composed in 1889, only a couple of years before his departure to America (to lead the National Conservatory) this piano quartet is Bohemian to the core, with an occasional nod to Brahms and the elegance of Vienna, especially in its waltz-like third movement.
Our group was populated with known quantities, high recommendations, and complete surprises: Will Hagen, the wonderful violinist who last year performed Dvorak’s Dumky Trio in our program, returned for yet more Dvorak, bringing with him his great spirit, eagerness and instrumental talent to burn. Highly recommended was violist Jossalyn Jensen who proved herself quickly with expert ensemble sensibility and a soulful sound perfect for the piece; cellist Zlatomir Fung was sent to us by his teacher, the already-legendary Richard Aaron, with the highest praise, and this extraordinary young cellist lived up to every expectation; and pianist Carmen Knoll, a last minute replacement for an injured Fei-Fei Dong (who has since recovered), was a great discovery for us all. A natural pianist and musician of extraordinary ability, she seems born to play music and is a totally captivating young artist.
The Dvorak Quartet is one of chamber music’s most popular works, and with that kind of familiarity, every group has to simply try to outdo the last one that played it. I have run my own performing life just that way (and had my expected share of disappointments and frustrations) but that kind of striving – especially for such talented young people – is a healthy thing, as you are really only competing with yourself. If you set your expectations higher than anyone imagines, you are more likely to please the majority, even if you feel you fell short.
When playing any over-the-top Romantic era work, one has to be careful not to become so excited as to lose perspective and control. If anyone should lose control it should be our listeners! So with this ensemble we worked carefully on, for example: the gradation of crescendos to achieve maximum impact; the subtleties of vibrato and color that can touch peoples’ hearts; and the judicious balancing of the instruments so that everything could be clearly heard even in the most complex passages.
In addition, each movement of this marvelous piece has a different character. The first is exuberant and serious, classically constructed perhaps the most like Brahms of any in the piece, and benefits from a steady tempo. The second is peaceful love song, intoned by the cello, interrupted by two turbulent storms. It’s a perfect depiction of many real-life relationships, and one of the most touching pieces Dvorak ever wrote.
The third movement is a like a waltz-fantasy, with touches of exotic, Middle Eastern-style melodies, and a middle section, announced by a buzzing tremolo in the viola, that turns into a very wild ride. After a welcome recapitulation of the opening waltz, the movement concludes with a soulful cello statement.
The finale is a vibrant peasant dance, in a stormy minor mode, which soon breaks into the sunshine with a loving, major-key second subject, and, for good measure, Dvorak throws in an additional theme to close the exposition in which both violin and viola soar to impassioned heights in truly memorable fashion.
During the week prior to the performance, we brought this Dvorak ensemble to be interviewed on Aspen Public Radio by host Chris Mohr. Chris expertly drew out their thoughts on the workshop experience, and it was fun for us to take a step back and hear, for the first time, what they have learned.
In addition, Wu Han and I also presented a master class in Harris Concert Hall – always part of our Aspen residency – where we worked with three cello-piano duos on sonatas by Debussy, Brahms and Rachmaninov.
Before we knew it, the final concert was upon us. Because of the intensity of Harris Concert Hall’s schedule, we had to have a separate dress rehearsal for each ensemble – not ideal, but we managed.
The dress rehearsal in the hall is perhaps the most important session of the program, for it is only then that the real balances, tempi, articulations and other details can receive their final adjustments. And there were many, which is as true for seasoned professionals as it is for students.
In general, a hall with good resonance like Harris Concert Hall requires judicious control of the loud playing (sounds can easily swell to huge proportions) clear diction like any good actor or speaker, exploring the minimums (sometimes it’s difficult to play soft enough) and simple matters of stage presence and behavior.
Part of our training for young musicians – in Aspen, Music@Menlo, Chamber Music Today in Korea and elsewhere – includes simply walking on and off stage and bowing properly. There are always ways to improve one’s appearance, body language and subliminal messaging.
The concert came together beautifully. Our ensembles played with great intensity, precision and awareness, and Wu Han and I sat in the audience remembering how they first sounded and marveling at the transformations these musicians and their interpretations had made over such a short time. We were very, very proud of them.
Afterwards we treated our graduates and their friends and families to a backstage pizza party. There was much hugging, laughing and endless picture taking.
We’ve all left this powerful experience with many wonderful memories. I hope I’ve captured a good portion of them in this blog, and I hope my readers get a sense of what a privilege it was for me and Wu Han to be part of this program.
Our thanks go out to the Aspen Music Festival and School for making this possible. Many administrators worked with dedication, precision and passion towards the success of this project, and we look forward with excitement to unfolding another incarnation of this extraordinary program next summer.
Photos: Christopher Ohanian, Angie Zhang, David Finckel
Tuesday-Wednesday, June 17-18
Following CMS’s return from the Dresden Music Festival, and a subsequent busy week in New York that included recitals in Rockport, Massachusetts and Albuquerque, New Mexico, Wu Han and I, joined by our daughter Lilian, stepped on a plane bound for Brussels to connect to a flight that has always been our favorite: one that lands in Venice.
Straining for views of the magnificent city from the plane window, it was difficult to contain our excitement at the coming CMS cruise, the seventh organized by our wonderful partner Travel Dynamics. Our look of relief and anticipation is more than obvious aboard the water taxi to the Hotel Saturnia.
This cruise would take us from Venice along the Dalmatian coast on the Adriatic, stopping at stunning islands and ports along the way to our final destination, the historic Croatian city of Dubrovnik. Joining us would be a group of travelers comprised of friends of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, of Music@Menlo, and others from Vanderbilt University and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Our tour consisted mostly of stops in the Republic of Croatia, now a boomerang-shaped country in the heart of central Europe with a population of 4.2 million. Its west arm, which stretches down the Adriatic coast for 3,600 miles, is dotted with inlets, reefs, and 1185 islands, of which 47 are inhabited. The east arm (which we did not visit) is landlocked, reaching far to the east, past the country’s central capital of Zagreb.
Croatia’s complex history dates back to the 7th century, with the Kingdom of Croatia beginning in the 10th century and lasting two hundred years. Subsequently controlled by Hungarians, Habsburg rulers and governed by alliances with its neighboring states, Croatia joined the socialist state of Yugoslavia after World War II. That arrangement began to crumble when Croatia held its own parliamentary elections and declared independence in 1991, leading to the four-year Croatian War of Independence (more on this later).
Other countries we visited included Bosnia-Herzegovina (Mostar) and Montenegro (Kotor) but only for the briefest of stops.
Our tour program’s flirtation with Venice – prior to embarkation – was no more than a taste, but we and few enthusiastic friends and colleagues arrived several days early in Venice to unwind and enjoy the one-of-a-kind environment. A pre-dinner Rialto Bridge photo includes Music@Menlo board member Ann Bowers, Patricia Foster and Chamber Music Society Executive Director Suzanne Davidson.
Of course, a large part of our excitement (as is normal for musicians) was over the food we were about to eat. Italian and Chinese food top our list of favorite cuisines and our favorite restaurant in Venice, Trattoria alla Rivetta (a hangout for both tourists and gondoliers) did not fail to please during our four (!) visits there in two days. Rivetta is just steps east of St. Mark’s square, on the street which offers this iconic view of the Bridge of Sighs, the infamous passageway over the Rio di Palazzo which connects the Doge’s Palace with the New Prison.
The food at Rivetta is incredible:
Soft shell crabs
Squid ink pasta
Walking the streets and canals of Venice is one of most continually captivating visual experiences to be found anywhere. The variety of beautiful scenes, and people from everywhere enjoying themselves, are both inspiring and rejuvenating to witness.
Friday, June 20
Our departure from Venice was as magical as one could imagine. All were on deck of the Corinthian to bid La Serenissima farewell as the sun set on the city, the harbor looking not much different from the way Canaletto painted it in mid-18th century.
Saturday, June 21: Rab Island, Croatia
By the next morning we had reached our first stop, the Croatian island and city of Rab, just off the Dalmatian coast in the Adriatic Sea. Named in ancient times after the dark pine forests that once grew there, the island was, like many in the region, ruled by Illyrians, Romans, Byzantines, Hungarians, Venetians, French, Hapsburgs, Italians, and Yugoslavians until Croatia became independent in 1991. The town’s rich cultural history and its beautiful beaches make it a popular tourist destination today, and Rab city’s charming squares and winding streets make it a fun place to explore.
The Corinthian holds roughly a hundred passengers only, making its voyages intimate and luxurious experiences. In addition, the ship’s small size allows it to dock, quite often, as close to town as possible. In some locations, such as Rab, the Corinthian was hardly out of view from any part of town.
With the Corinthian docked so conveniently, it was only a few steps to our first concert venue, the tiny (and boomy) Church of the Holy Cross. Joining us for this cruise were the estimable violinists Kristin Lee and Arnaud Sussmann, who gamely doubled on viola, switching mid-concert without hesitation as needed.
Our first program included Dvorak’s Sonatina for violin and piano, Op. 100, a charming duo by Shostakovich for 2 violins and piano, and the Beethoven Piano Quartet. The morning concert got our public obligations done by lunchtime and we walked quickly back to the Corinthian for lunch on the deck during our departure for Split, a long journey that would put us into port at 7am the following morning.
The leisurely sail took us through myriad beautiful passageways between the islands, many uninhabited, in this area of the Adriatic. There have been many true feasts-for-the-eyes to be had off the deck of our cabin, a perfect place for relaxing happy hours.
Sunday, June 22: Split, Croatia
Split is the Croatia’s largest coastal city and is famous for the spectacular remains of the palace of the Roman emperor Diocletian. In addition, Split boasts a spectacular port and a city brimming with shops, restaurants and seemingly endless glamorous people.
The morning tour included the villa of Croatia’s most famous sculptor Ivan Mestrovic (1883-1962), widely regarded as one of the greatest sculptors in history and the first living artist to have a solo show at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Influenced by the Art Nouveau and Cubism movements, he created many monuments and religious works, both in stone and wood. His work, truly stunning to behold in person, can be viewed at his lavish villa overlooking the coast (which is now preserved as his gallery).
The central area of Split is dominated by the remains of the palace of the Roman emperor Diocletion (264-305 A.D.), and the thriving city is built virtually into what is left of the Roman emperor’s retirement home, where he lived out his last years having become the only Roman emperor to ever abdicate. Essentially, Diocletian’s palace became the core of Split. The underground tunnels and dungeons are tourist favorites.
Our concert took place in the Split Theater, the city’s premiere concert hall, but instead of the main hall, we used the lobby, which was not only the perfect size for our ensemble but as architecturally elegant and as acoustically perfect as any concert hall I can recall. Our program consisted of a Mozart violin and viola duo followed by Smetana’s heart-rending Piano Trio, written in the aftermath of the death of his second daughter.
Forsaking the bicycle tour in the afternoon, the musicians once again practiced and rehearsed, but had a special party to look forward to in the late afternoon: A joint reception for travelers from both Music@Menlo and the Chamber Music Society, hosted by me and Wu Han, plus Edward Sweeney and Suzanne Davidson.
A sumptuous grilled sea bass dinner in town –
– was followed by a blissful short walk to the harbor, the musicians accompanied by Music@Menlo executive director Edward Sweeney. There is little more comforting on tour than seeing your floating home glittering in the distance.
Monday, June 23: Hvar
A crystal clear morning welcomed us to the dock near the ancient town of Stari Grad, on the island of Hvar (pronounced “Var”).
The Croatian island of Hvar (the name derived from its original Greek name Pharos) is one of the most fascinating places I have ever visited. To begin, the island is 42 miles long and only 8 miles at its widest.
The morning tour proved impossible to resist (we musicians frequently needed to decline sightseeing opportunities in order to prepare for our concerts) as we were told that our buses would take the scenic route, traversing the top of the east-west limestone ridge, surrounded by fields of lavender, on the way to the picturesque Hvar Town on the island’s eastern tip. The quick ascent soon revealed breathtaking views.
While Hvar’s history is as interesting and complex as many of its neighbors, I personally found the island’s geography and botanical features, plus the remains of human activities, captivating.
The first unusual feature of the hillsides is the presence of numerous, wide stone walls.
Hvar island has no surface water: no lakes, ponds or streams, and very little fresh water coming from springs or wells. Therefore the island’s inhabitants depend heavily on rainwater, which soaks quickly into crevices in the dry ground, and there is little of it as the island boasts claims to be “the sunniest place in Europe” with over 300 clear days per year. The stone walls, now on mostly-abandoned farm land, were built to contain the flow of rainwater within growing areas, stem erosion, and keep herds of animals separated.
The island has interesting vegetation, with bare patches and scrub at higher altitudes, and lavender fields and pine trees lower down. Hvar is known as “The Island of Lavender” which is used to produce soaps and other aromatic products.
Although we didn’t have a chance to try any, there is a busy wine-making industry on Hvar, famous for both its reds and whites.
On our ascent we stopped at an ancient lime kiln. These were built to melt the mountains’ ubiquitous lime rocks into quicklime, used for plaster, cement, pigment, pavement material, agriculture and other uses.
The early kilns were built with small doors at the bottom through which the lime stones were placed and air flowed to fuel the fire. The fire heated the built-up layers of lime above it, which gradually dropped to the floor and cooled. (The kilns were small, as one too big would collapse as its insides burned away). The whole process, from loading the lime to its eventual removal, took about a week’s time.
During our stop at the kiln, the positioning of gigantic buses on the side of the narrow road was challenged by a rugged-looking gentleman at the wheel of a Yugo, a now-extinct, hand-made automobile that was first produced by the Yugoslav/Serbian company Zastava in 1978. Famous for its unreliability, it became a novelty/fad and was imported by an entrepreneur between 1985 and 1991, who sold Americans 141,511 of what was voted one of the 50 worst cars of all time. They were widely used in Slovenia, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and many can still be seen there, jerry-rigged to continue running, as original parts are long unavailable. Cars like these are often found on Hvar island, as many of the residents use Hvar as a summer home or commute to the island for work, and find it easier to have second cars and trucks on the island.
Descending into thick forests dotted with limestone boulders, we soon reached the city of Hvar, the largest on the island. Hvar city was a center for trade and culture during centuries of Venetian rule, and the Venetian lion can be seen still on the fortress which dates from the 13th century. The ancient walls survive as do many historic buildings and churches.
The views of the harbor from the fortress are breathtaking.
The town of Hvar is a place I could have stayed for months.
The Franciscan Monastery at the far end of the harbor hosts a chamber music festival in its courtyard, steps from the beach.
Regretfully boarding the bus for the “fast road” back to the ship, we were nevertheless treated to spectacular views from a winding mountainside highway, as well as the customary warm welcome from the extraordinary staff of the Corinthian.
Tuesday, June 24: Mostar
The city of Mostar is one-and-a-half hours from the sea by bus. Our port, therefore, was the quaint if unremarkable town of Ploce on the Adriatic. Perfectly picturesque but seemingly deserted, Ploce is the main port city used by Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Mostar is one of the major cities of Bosnia and Herzegovina lying on the trade route between the Adriatic and the country’s mountainous areas. It is also a cultural capital of the region. The city is named after the keepers of the famous Old Bridge (Stari Most), built during the Ottoman period in the sixteenth century, then a wonder in its own time, and now one of the most iconic landmarks in the region. In former times, young men would jump into the river as a rite of passage; today they do it for money! This stunt is just one component of the lively tourist industry that helped rebuild Mostar after the devastation of the Croatian war, and sustains Mostar’s economy today.
The group also visited the beautiful Tabacica Mosque, one of the many mosques in Mostar. Afterwards, there was a typical Bosnian lunch that consisted of chicken soup, stuffed grape leaves, stuffed peppers and beef.
Some of our guests continued on a post-tour extension to Sarajevo after our final day in Dubrovnik. Those involved in the Sarajevo trip were taken to the Croatian towns of Ston and Mali Ston (Little Ston), two historic sites where they were treated to a boat ride, oyster, olive oil and cheese tasting. Why we didn’t get to go I don’t entirely understand, but those who did said it was terrific.
Our sail-out in the evening included gorgeous views, a textbook Finckel Happy Hour on the balcony, and lots of nice warm wind.
While dining that evening, the Corinthian completed its 29 mile sail to the Croatian island of Korcula. As the meal wound down, and people were saying their goodnights, I decided to step off the ship to check out the town, as we were docked right alongside. Even before descending the gangplank, I could tell we were in an incredible place. A quick walk of one block convinced me to return to the ship and coax the passengers – I think almost all of them – to join me on a late evening walk through one of the most magical, vibrant and picturesque stops on our entire tour.
The first unbelievable sight was the sterns of some of most inviting yachts I’ve ever seen, backed in right next to the Corinthian.
The Corinthian was snuggled in, a stone’s throw from the old city walls and defensive tower.
The late town visit included a stroll by Cathedral of St. Mark’s, which would be our concert venue the following day.
A brief pause before returning to the ship turned into a photo-op.
Wednesday, June 25: Korcula
The following morning greeted us with our first clouds and rain of the trip. However, a break from the hot sun was something of a relief, and the intermittent showers did not compromise the attractiveness of the town. As you can see from this photo, taken with a telephoto lens from the cathedral steps, the Corinthian was always waiting.
Korcula is the second-most populous and the sixth-largest Adriatic island, although the town of Korcula feels most intimate. The island also includes around a dozen other cities that help house its population of 16,000; roughly a third of them live in Korcula town.
Despite the rain, the town was crammed with tourists visiting the beautiful historical sights, such as the Cathedral of St. Mark (1301), the Franciscan Monastery, various palaces and of course the impressive fortifications.
The concert, which began at 5 p.m., was a challenge for those on production duty. First, a torrential downpour drove half of our audience into the church early, and we had to abbreviate our only dress rehearsal for the concert. In addition, the church staff members were less than adept at keeping curious tourists from entering noisily, and Suzanne, Edward, our daughter Lilian, and Tour Director John Frick and Tour Managers Brian Goyette and Toni Silic did their best, as diplomatically as possible, to try to maintain a concert-level environment.
In addition, for some reason the church heated itself to what seemed like record levels of heat and humidity. My colleagues performed amazingly while I missed just about every left hand shift in the Dvorak due to an uncontrollably wet fingerboard.
Wu Han began the program with Brahms’s late Intermezzi, Op. 118, about which she gave an enlightening talk before playing.
The cathedral provided a truly stunning setting.
Dvorak’s ever-popular Piano Quartet closed the concert, and our series of performances on this cruise. Kristin Lee played the violin part with fire, passion and technical perfection, while Arnaud Sussmann once again amazed with his apparently effortless ability to play the viola, out-classing all but the finest players of that unjustly-maligned instrument in the world.
Immediately following the performance, all the church staff descended on the scene to move the piano, the chairs, the altar rug, in a great hurry. Apparently our concert had lasted 30 minutes longer than expected, and I hope our transgression does not prevent future performances in this beautiful setting.
Sure enough, as we returned to ship, the clouds began to break, a warm glow came from the west, the restaurants started to fill up, and we enjoyed a picturesque sail-away from Korcula as the town lights came on.
After a spectacular sunset,
we gathered for the Captain’s Farewell dinner (one night early as some passengers were departing early the next day). The lobster tail dinner concluded with the Corinthian’s traditional Baked Alaska*, and a chance for us to applaud in appreciation of Chef Rey Canlas and his kitchen staff. The cuisine on the Corinthian (and before that on the Corinthian II) has been superb, every meal, from sumptuous breakfasts to eclectic and tasty outdoor lunches to sublime and elegant dinners.
*Baked Alaska is an ice cream cake encased in meringue which is cooked quickly at a very high temperatures, allowing the meringue to crust while it insulates the ice cream from melting. The name was applied to the dessert (which had been around long before in Asia, Europe and America) to aptly commemorate the Alaskan territories acquired by America in 1876.
Thursday, June 26: Kotor and Dubrovnik
After a turbulent all-night sail, the Corinthian entered the winding, picturesque Bay of Kotor at 6:30 a.m., passing through the narrow strait that was once defended by an underwater chain stretching between its shores.
Popularly referred to as Europe’s southernmost fjord (but technically a “ria” or submerged river canyon) the bay is surrounded by steep mountain slopes, its shores dotted with attractive dwellings and churches, and its hills with mysterious and intriguing ruins. The bay’s beautiful towns make it a major tourist attraction, and its many churches, monasteries make it a site of religious pilgrimages.
Making a right turn to sail to Kotor at the end of the bay, one passes the jewel-like islands of Our Lady of the Rocks and Sveti Ðorde (St. George).
A brief glance at the history of Kotor and the bay reveals that just about everyone who was anyone in European history had control of or at least a go at it for most of its 2000-plus year history.
The ruins of a fortress built by the Roman Emperor Justinian in 535 dominate the city.
The cozy, walled town offers everything from sublime churches to enticing pizza to street cats.
Departing promptly at 11:30, we began a long afternoon sail to our final destination, the world-renowned city of Dubrovnik, arriving at port by 4 p.m. and quickly transferring to coaches that would bring us to town alongside the city’s massive walls, considered among the world’s most extraordinary.
Since its founding in the 7th century, the city has been known by its Italian name Ragusa, but now goes by its Croatian name of Dubrovnik which dates from the Middle Ages, and was officially adopted in 1918 at the end of Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Dubrovnik’s spectacular harbor has been a coveted strategic location for centuries, fought over and possessed by the Ostrogoths, the Byzantine Empire, the Venetians, the Kingdom of Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Napoleon’s Kingdom of Italy.
Under the sovereignty of Venice, the Republic of Ragusa (founded 1272) made strides civil and social strides that put it way ahead of its time. Medical services were provided in 1301 and the world’s first pharmacy, opened in 1371, is still in business.
Slavery was abolished in 1418, 447 years ahead of the United States. In 1377 a hospital was founded, and in 1432 an orphanage. The Republic’s statutes included town planning and sanitary laws.
One commonly enters the walled city through its gate next to the harbor, and is immediately struck with spectacular scenery.
Dubrovnik’s vibrant streets make it difficult to choose between shopping, eating, or sightseeing.
With only a bit more than two hours to absorb one of Europe’s most incredible cities, our several groups, all led by vastly experienced guides, did their best to soak in overwhelming history of Dubrovnik, all the while navigating the crowds, avoiding the hot sun, and dealing with the aforementioned pleasurable distractions. Several wise travelers had elected to stay an extra day –among them our violinist Kristin Lee, on her way post-tour to Naples and Positano for further music-making. She made us all a bit jealous.
On the way back to the bus I was surprised to hear an unfamiliar voice cautiously calling my name. It turned out that in fact I have a Cello Talks student who is a native of Dubrovnik and plays the bass. It’s still hard for me to believe how far and wide that project has reached.
It was indeed wonderful to have the company and support of CMS’s and Music@Menlo’s executive directors Suzanne Davidson and Edward Sweeney. Edward and I paused for a last scenic photo in front of the harbor.
Boarding the Corinthian for our final evening of merriment, Wu Han and Lilian looked down from our suite on the top deck.
Deprived of a final sunset sail (as we were all disembarking at Dubrovnik the following morning) we were nonetheless entertained by the always-thoughtful and resourceful Travel Dynamics staff. A band of Croatian musicians performed on board for us, and master tour-documenter John Frick recalled the week’s incredible adventures with a beautiful slide show.
Enough cannot be said for the Corinthian’s staff. From John, Brian and Toni, to our elegant and gracious chambermaid Elena, to expert maitre’d Renato, to vigilant hotel manager Bogdan, to our attentive butler Michael, to the ship’s brilliant pianist Eddie, to the world’s most wonderful bartender Jerome, and so many others who over many cruises have learned our names and treat us like family: to all of them we express our deepest thanks and admiration for their work, on behalf of the Chamber Music Society, Music@Menlo, our staffs and our musicians. Without them, the Corinthian would be just another cruise ship.
We also are so grateful to violinists Kristin Lee and Arnaud Sussmann for the time they invested in this project, and for their deep artistry, stunning instrumental gifts, supportive enthusiasm and professional adaptability to the variety of performance situations encountered on such adventures. They were inspiring colleagues and simply a lot of fun to be around – an opinion held by all on board.
And finally, to our crowd of devoted traveling companions, we express our gratitude for their participation and company on this voyage, and for their support of the musical institutions so dear to us. We wish all of our friends safe journeys home and at sea and look forward to our next adventure together.
Monday September 15th
Ever since our first visit to the exquisite city of Prague, we dreamed of sharing the incredible experiences we enjoyed there with our musical communities in New York and San Francisco. And so it was with enormous satisfaction and pride that we eventually realized that dream, appropriately soon after the conclusion of Music@Menlo’s Around Dvorák season. After duo recitals both in the north and south of Germany, we boarded a train in Munich that took us, in a state of great excitement and anticipation, directly to the main station of Prague.
A total of twenty-five travelers joined us for the visit, meeting up with us at the stunning Aria Hotel in the quieter section of the city, the Mala Strana. There, we were greeted by our tour manager Peter Straus of The Grand Tour, and by Ivana Tatkova, our local guide.
In short order, we called for the first musicians’ “faculty meeting” in our room, where we were delighted to greet our two extraordinary colleagues for the tour, violinists Sean Lee and Arnaud Sussmann, who gallantly doubled on viola, as needed.
A lovely reception in the hotel’s private garden allowed us not only to greet our group on the ground, but to snap a bird’s eye view photo of them from our room, the Dvorák Suite.
We were fortunate to have with us as well our two Development Directors: Annie Rohan from Music@Menlo and Sharon Griffin from the Chamber Music Society, who worked tirelessly to ensure that all our travelers’ needs were met.
Wu Han and I welcomed the group over champagne and hors d’oeuvres.
We then headed out towards the nearby Charles Bridge, the most iconic of Prague’s river crossings, built in 1357 by King Charles IV.
Our destination, however, was the Kampa Park restaurant, situated directly on the Moldau, where we enjoyed a festive meal and a perfect view of the bridge.
The next morning we set out on the dot of 9:30 am for a place Wu Han and I had heard much about but never seen: the Strahov Monastery, which overlooks Prague from up the hill behind our hotel. For this, and many other outings, we boarded a cozy bus that seemed designed to perfectly fit our group – including my cello, which always gets its own seat on planes, trains and automobiles.
The monastery was founded in 1143 by a local bishop who was inspired by a trip to the Holy Lands. The main focus of our visit was the library or Theological Hall, which dates from 1679 and is truly a wondrous sight to behold. Our visit there was made all the more special as we had gained exclusive access to the library (with countless other tourists staring jealously at us through the door).
It was in the library that we first got a taste of Ivana’s vast knowledge of Prague’s history. This remarkable, charming and articulate woman spent virtually the entire tour with us, and I never heard her asked a question that she couldn’t answer. People like Ivana would make me consider becoming a tour guide in a next life – such is the admiration I have for them.
The library fortunately survived conflict through the centuries, as well as its secularization during the Communist regime. On the occasion of the Velvet Revolution in 1989, the monastery was returned to the religious order from which it was confiscated, and subsequent care and renovation restored it to its former glory. There is literally not a place the eye travels that it does not encounter extraordinary beauty. I especially loved looking at – and photographing – the thousands of ancient books, many bound in white leather.
After recovering from the breath-taking sights in the library, the group walked past the church, through a courtyard, and upstairs to a small but perfectly formed chamber music room, the site of our first concert.
A close inspection of the photo above will reveal a white piano facing backwards, away from the audience. None of us could figure out for what purpose it had been positioned that way, but the musicians and I (plus Peter Straus) managed to lift it and turn it around. One never knows what roles one must play during a musical career!
Our performance began with Arnaud and Wu Han reprising Dvorák’s Sonatina, Op. 100, a charming work that he composed during his stay in America. As I enjoyed the incredible view of the city from the window while listening to such gorgeous music, I must admit that pretty intense emotions suddenly caught up with me, and I doubt I was alone. Hearing great music is always an emotional experience, yet this moment was, for me and Wu Han, the culmination of years of dreaming and planning, and here it was in real time. There are really no words to describe the beauty of that moment, one that will stay with me, vividly, forever. Hearing just the first few exuberant bars of this piece, in the heart of the Bohemia so dear to Dvorák, was worth the entire trip right there.
The acoustics of the room were wonderful, and the piano – a Petrof, the Czech Steinway as they are called – was well tuned, thanks to Peter’s diligent and insistent preparatory work. Following the Sonatina, Arnaud took out his viola and was joined by me, Sean and Wu Han for Mozart’s E-flat Piano Quartet. The privilege of playing Mozart in Prague – a city he loved so well and which loved him back equally – was also a great thrill and a fitting component of our musical pilgrimage.
Our fun-loving audience was delighted by the sight of Arnaud and Sean, both wearing black suits, posing as Wu Han’s bodyguards, and a large, spontaneous photo session ensued.
We departed the pretty room slowly and somewhat reluctantly, as we had all shared a very special hour in it. And if you are wondering: yes, we left the piano in a position suitable for the next group of deserving musicians.
After walking single-file through a tunnel under the neighboring building, we emerged onto the street outside the monastery for the short walk to the Prague Loreto.
The Prague Loreto is an ancient cloister, an intimate collection of buildings of extreme beauty sheltered from the city by high walls. Begun in 1626 as a result of the efforts of a member of the Lobkowicz family, the complex grew over several centuries and became a famous destination for pilgrimages. The central courtyard is ringed by an arcade decorated with mesmerizing paintings, many faded over time, which encloses the church and Santa Casa, the ornate building to the right which is the heart and original building of the Loreto. The interior is richly decorated and bears the Lobkowicz name prominently.
The much-larger Church of the Nativity of our Lord is visible behind the Casa, and its interior is also lavishly decorated with silver, gold, sublime paintings and a huge variety of colored marble. The church was consecrated roughly a century after the founding of the cloister.
After another picturesque stroll through winding cobblestone streets, we arrived at the Golden Pear for a delicious lunch. It was hard to believe we had done so much already, and it was barely 1 pm! At meals such as these, the opportunities for socializing and meeting some fellow travelers for the first time became quickly apparent. On this particular trip, literally everyone had come to experience exactly the same things, so we all had a lot in common. And, what a thrill it was for me and Wu Han to see such dear friends from both coasts come to know each other and form lasting relationships – another wonderful dream that came true in Prague during these amazing days.
Free time in the afternoon freshened us all up for our visit to Prague’s famous Rudolfinum to hear a concert by the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra (from Russia) as part of the annual Dvorák Festival.
The Rudolfinum is named for Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria, who officiated at the hall’s opening in 1885. It is one of Europe’s oldest concert halls and is the home of the Czech Philharmonic, which gave its first concert there in 1896, conducted by none other than Antonin Dvorák . The hall has fantastic acoustics, which I can attest to from experience both as a listener and performer, as well as genuine old-world charm and dignity, two qualities increasingly hard to come by today.
Our group was divided in its assessment of the Prokofiev Violin Concerto which opened the program, but not one of us failed to notice that the musicians assumed on an especially lively character in the second half as they played their hearts out in Dvorák’s “New World” Symphony. Every section of the orchestra, from the double basses on up, distinguished itself, and they were justly rewarded with a rapturous reception from what we imagined must be an opinionated audience. No doubt these Russians were thrilled – as any of us would have been – to perform this great work in Dvorák’s town. And, on top of it, here we were, a group of Americans, listening in Prague to this piece that Dvorák wrote in the U. S. and dedicated to our country, played with fervor by an orchestra of Russians. It was globalization at its very best.
As if Tuesday had not been a big day already, our group was setting its sights even higher for Wednesday, and literally so, as we headed up and up first thing in the morning to the famous Prague Castle, which dominates the Prague skyline.
Seen in probably most images of Prague, the castle is as iconic and is recognizable on a level with other cities’ most famous landmark structures. It is the largest ancient castle in the world (according to the Guinness Book of World Records) and is residence of the president of the Czech Republic. Since it was built in the 9th century, it has been the seat of power for Holy Roman Emperors, kings of Bohemia, and modern leaders.
The Prague Castle is actually a collection of distinguished buildings varying greatly in size, from the massive Cathedral of St. Vitus to various palaces, churches, museums, and smaller dwellings. The castle contains buildings of virtually every architectural style of the last one thousand years.
A whirlwind tour expertly guided by Ivana brought us all together at noon at one of the trip’s prime destinations and focal points: the Lobkowicz Palace, the Prague family seat of our friends William and Alexandra Lobkowicz and their three extraordinary children.
William Lobkowicz is technically the thirteenth Lobkowicz prince and the heir to all of the family’s holdings in the Czech Republic. A visit to the family’s web site (http://www.lobkowicz.cz/en/) will provide a detailed history of this noble Bohemian family, which dates back to the 14th century.
Our interaction with the Lobkowicz family, however, is centered around the seventh Prince, Joseph Franz Maximilian (1772-1816), who was one of history’s most passionate and dedicated music patrons. A serious amateur musician himself (there was little distinction in those days between amateur and professional) he also had exceedingly good taste, choosing to commission the likes of Haydn and Beethoven, among others, with spectacular results.
The story of the Lobkowicz family has too many incredible chapters to relate here. The dramatic loss of their possessions twice, during and after the Second World War, and their recovery after the Velvet Revolution, is simply one of history’s most thrilling and remarkable stories. And making it all the more vivid is the personal relationship we now enjoy with present family, who are wholly responsible for saving and preserving one of the great historic collections of the world.
Our audiences in both New York and California have been treated to visits from the Lobkowicz family, who came to be honored, to share their incredible history past and present, and to hear us perform music by Beethoven and Haydn which would simply not exist without their ancestor’s vision and generosity. The family joined us in July, during their visit to Music@Menlo, for drinks on the porch of our Music@Menlo summer home.
For our Music@Menlo audience especially, who had only last summer become accustomed to seeing William, in shorts and moccasins, playing Ping-Pong on the Menlo School lawn, it was quite a moment when he strode into the elegant dining room in the palace to welcome us to his, well, totally awesome home, the only privately-owned property within the Prague Castle.
After giving us the briefest history of his family and the castle, William and Alexandra, who are always extremely busy taking care of business and visitors, graciously joined us for the entire lunch, answering the inevitably numerous questions that came their way.
The sumptuous lunch…
…was followed by a mind-blowing tour of the palace. The Prague palace is one of the four castles that the family still owns and maintains, having sold or donated to the state eleven others that technically became theirs after the fall of the Communist regime.
The family chose to use the Prague Castle – its most frequently-visited holding- to reveal both the incredible story of the family and to display some of the most prominent treasures of their collection. So while walking the many rooms containing paintings by artists such as Canaletto, Breughel and Velasquez, music manuscripts by Beethoven, family china services dating back centuries, arms, armor and tons more, one learns the story of the family, all eloquently narrated by William himself on the audio guide. While it is indeed overwhelming to hear their story and look at their possessions, the unpretentious, humble and dedicated Lobkowicz family members of today truly make visitors feel welcome on a personal level. Their mission – to preserve and share the enormous slice of Czech history in their stewardship – is communicated clearly and with passion, and it actually makes you wonder if there’s some way you could help.
Dazzled by the incomparable experience of the day, we returned to rest for our Moldau dinner cruise. The quaint little boat, manned by a quintessential old-style ship captain and crew, sailed the river while we drank a lot of wine, tasted a huge selection of nibbles, and took many pictures of the incredible city views from mid-river, at sunset and into the night.
To say that the 18th was the BIGGEST DAY of this tour is a statement that would cause no disagreement among our group. I’m talking about “big” in terms of not only the amount we all saw and did, but also recognizing the unbelievable stamina of the entire group, from patrons to musicians to organizers, which plowed through a wondrous wealth of experiences with a concentration and enthusiasm that was truly amazing.
Leaving the hotel promptly at 9:00am, we enjoyed a picturesque coach trip into the countryside, arriving at another Lobkowicz castle, Roudnice, at about 10:30. Roudnice (pronounced ROAD-nitz-e to the best of my knowledge) was a large family seat of the family, and by large I mean that the property is bigger than the entire Prague Castle (not just the Lobkowicz palace). The castle is four centuries old and has 250 rooms (this is a good moment both to wonder how William and his wife manage to take care of such a place, let alone the others, and to better understand why William told us that “castles are great places to give away”).
The castle is only partly restored, and had all of it been accessible, we wouldn’t have made it anywhere else for the rest of the day. The place is huge. The mammoth central courtyard, which used to hold gardens…
…literally dwarfed our group as we stood marveling at the size and scale of this house that was once the Princely and Ducal seat of the family.
We had a good look at the beautifully restored chapel and a couple of other rooms, including a beautifully-perched balcony on the rear side which overlooks the little town. But a main focus of our visit was what happened underneath the massive castle: the production of the Roudnice Lobkowicz Winery.
During the tour of the dungeon-like basement, we got a look at some of the ancient Romanesque foundations, as well as a view of the remains of a hapless one-time resident.
A brief walk around the castle walls led us to the Lobkowicz Winery tasting room, where lavish and voluminous cheese plates and way-too-much wine awaited us. Lunch, by the way, was still to come.
After about an hour of uninhibited eating and drinking, we boarded the bus in various states of consciousness, which unified themselves rather quickly into a solid group nap on the way to our next destination.
When we got to where we were going, what a wake-up call we had: the house where Dvorák was born.
In this little town of Nelahozeves, about 20 minutes outside Prague, two of the principal arms of this tour linked together in the most extraordinary way. For not only were we in the room where Dvorák was born, but we looked out the window at yet another Lobkowicz castle. And, as we entered the little house to visit and play some music, in the door behind us came William himself, whose family, unbelievably, also owns this historic Dvorák house.
Sean and Wu Han and I quickly set up around the grand piano, and after a couple of introductory words, we played one of the most magical movements Dvorák ever composed: the third movement of his incomparable “Dumky” Trio. In our audience was not only William Lobkowicz, but also the eminent musicologist, author and Dvorák expert David Beveridge, an American resident of Prague, who served as one of Music@Menlo’s Encounter leaders last summer. Within the first notes of piece, we all knew once again that we were in the midst of a defining moment of the trip, privileged through our relationships and connections to be a part of something that few others must have ever enjoyed. To say it was unforgettable is of course an understatement, and once again, there are no words that can adequately describe the experience.
Before we left the house, Wu Han coaxed Chamber Music Society board member and serious pianist Paul Gridley to join her for an impromptu reading of some four-hand music by Dvorák. His fellow travelers were amazed and delighted.
Dvorák’s father was the town butcher and ran a small tavern as well. A few steps across the street from the house is the tiny church where Dvorák first performed music.
Dvorák was baptized in the font to the right of David Beveridge, who spoke to us about Dvorák’s early life in this most contextual of settings.
A few more steps behind the chapel, next to the Moldau River, runs the train line that was built during Dvorák’s childhood and from which, it is assumed, he developed his fascination with trains. The line was the first to connect Dresden and Prague. The corner of the Lobkowicz palace is visible to the right.
There was time for a quick musician portrait in front of Dvorák’s house before boarding the bus for the palace.
The Dvorák birth house sits on a small street that leads directly to the imposing Lobkowicz Palace.
As one approaches the palace, its magnificence overwhelms, as it must have all the residents of this tiny town since it was built in the 16th century.
A grand courtyard greets visitors after they pass over the drawbridge and through a tunnel.
Although we were all anxious to tour the palace, another sumptuous meal awaited us, accompanied by plentiful Lobkowicz wine, and served elegantly by waiters wearing white gloves. Everywhere you looked, there were beautiful paintings to stare at, often depicting the surrounding area.
I remembered the palace well, as several years earlier William had showed me through it himself. I dutifully respected the staff’s request for no photos and all I can say is that one must go there anyway to really absorb the experience. The family very smartly chose to set this palace up as a model of how they lived there in the 19th century. The stunning exhibition, titled Private Spaces: A Noble Family at Home, is beautifully executed, with contiguous rooms allowing us to be inside the elegant dining room, the bedrooms, smoking room, drawing room, family chapel and rooms devoted to hunting and the arms required, a necessary pastime for a family subsisting off the land.
Through the music room window, the Dvorák house is perfectly framed below. It is more than likely that the Lobkowicz family purchased meat and goods from Dvorák’s father.
Our guided tour included a special presentation of important musical items from the vast collection, including a letter from Beethoven, held in front of us close enough to touch (but we resisted).
It was at about this time that Wu Han and I began to receive signals from our tour organizers that we had fallen pretty far behind schedule. It was almost impossible to draw our travelers – especially the musicians – away from the music collection, but we needed to get back to the hotel to change and prepare ourselves for the evening’s concert at Vila Amerika.
That never happened. Traffic was such that by the time we got into Prague the sun was just dipping behind the famous church towers of the Town Square.
A unanimous decision was taken to forego the refreshing and head directly to the Vila Amerika for the concert. We had our instruments with us anyway, and at this point, nothing to lose.
Vila Amerika, an ornate Baroque residence once the site of numerous high-society activity, now houses the Antonin Dvorák Museum, which was established there in 1932.
The museum contains many important documents and artifacts, such as Dvorák’s own piano.
The concert took place in a beautiful room on the second floor, where we soothed our tired travelers with the Brahms e minor cello sonata and the complete Dvorák Dumky Trio, for which Sean Lee joined us, playing magnificently without even a moment’s warm up.
Thankfully, the bus awaited us for transport to our beautiful hotel for a much-needed night’s sleep.
Friday, September 19
Rehearsals and private practice obligations necessarily deprive us musicians of the total tour experience, and we are forced to pick and choose what to see and what must wait until our hopefully eventual return to the many incredible places our tours and cruises take us. Friday’s activities constituted an all-day walking tour of the Prague city center, and I elected to only take part in a portion in order to devote time to the cello and the music I would be performing. Therefore, I apologize that my blog of a tour is never quite complete, but I do try to make up the difference when I can.
The portion of the walk that I joined wound through small streets with hidden surprises, such as this hotel where Beethoven had stayed. Such are the amazing discoveries to be made, over and over again, in this incredible city.
As we crossed the storied Charles Bridge, we looked up again, in amazement, at the Prague Castle, and the imposing palace of the Lobkowicz family, where we had dined with William and Alexandra, and where we would return for our final concert and dinner on Sunday (the yellow portion on the far right with the red pointed tower is the Lobkowicz Palace).
The one portion of the day that I just couldn’t miss was the private tour of the Estates Theater (the name “Estates” refers to the Enlightenment sentiment that all classes of society (estates) should be afforded access to privileges such as cultural entertainment). This magnificent 18th century theater is one of the world’s prime musical sight-seeing destinations, chiefly because of the presence of Mozart and the historic performances of his operas, including the world premieres of Don Giovanni and La Clemenza di Tito.
The inside is like a jewel box, and it’s absolutely incredible to sit in it, imagining Mozart right there in front of you on the podium. We were lucky to enjoy our own private tour of the historic theater.
The ceiling and the ornate box seat enclosures are enough to take your breath away.
Upon leaving the theater, we got word from our music-historian-in-residence David Beveridge that our pleas to be admitted to the manuscript collection of the Dvorák Museum had been answered in the positive. So David Beveridge, Sean, Arnaud, Wu Han and I abandoned the group (and what was apparently an amazing lunch) to rush back across the Charles Bridge to the museum. We had just enough time to see what we wanted to see before the museum closed at 3:00 pm. (In order to do this, we also had to forsake what we heard was a fascinating guided tour of the Jewish Quarter and cemetery in the Old Town.)
This visit to the museum was the direct consequence of my having been there two years prior, also at the instigation of David Beveridge (who is known and respected by the staff) during which Philip Setzer and I studied the manuscripts to Dvorák’s Dumky and f minor piano trios, and I the famous, incomparable Cello Concerto. That was a peak experience that I had vowed to repeat, next time in the company of Wu Han and more musician colleagues, and I’m immensely gratified to say that on this day, my dream came true.
Under the watchful eye of David, we cautiously removed the precious manuscripts from their boxes.
Protective gloves are required procedure for anyone touching this music: These were the actual composition scores. You can see where Dvorák changed this and that as he went along, and recorded the dates that he began and finished each movement. Wu Han looked at the manuscript of the Sonatina for Violin and Piano, composed during Dvorák’s American visit, in reverent astonishment.
The discoveries one makes upon seeing the original manuscript of a composer can be life-changing. The excitement in the room was at fever pitch, as one of us poured over Dvorák’s Violin Concerto, another over his “American” Quintet, and me over the “American” string quartet, a piece I must have played a thousand times. One can only imagine the thrill I had holding the papers onto which those now-beloved ideas were first set down. We all agreed on one point as we left: as fantastic and multi-faceted as the trip had been so far, the experience we shared with Dvorák’s music in that little room would have been, for us, enough reason to make the journey right there. We all realized that we were, that afternoon, four very lucky and privileged musicians, and for that I must again thank David Beveridge for making this extraordinary moment possible.
After the briefest of stops back at our hotel, we headed out again to the National Theater (opened in 1881) for a performance of Dvorák’s most famous and often-performed opera, Rusalka, composed in 1900. Once again, we were in an historic performance space, where the young free-lancer Dvorák had played viola in the orchestra under the direction of the “father” of Czech music, Bedrich Smetana (Dvorák had previously played viola in the Estates Theater orchestra as well).
A Rusalka is a kind of un-dead mermaid, living on the bottom of the river, who comes ashore at night and lures men to their deaths. They are, according to some legends, women who have died prematurely under tragic circumstances who return among the living to seek justice or revenge. In Dvorák’s opera, Rusalka falls in love with a prince who is hunting near her lake and all I’ll say is that it doesn’t turn out too well for him in the end. Dvorák’s music, however, is mature and masterful, this being his final creation for the stage at the height of his maturity. The evening proved to be yet another incomparable experience in a string of many since our arrival only five days earlier.
Once again, regrettably, I had to stay back to practice for our final concert the next day, but our curious and tireless group headed out again in the morning to the Old Town for more sightseeing.
The group’s first stop was Wenceslas Square, and then to the Mucha Museum, as in Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939), the definitive Art Nouveau artist. The group then continued to the iconic Municipal House, the location of Smetana Hall and also the famous restaurant Francouska, where an elegant lunch was served.
The entire building is an Art Nouveau treasure, down to every detail. Opened in 1905, it is filled with mosaics, stained glass, sculptures and glass domed ceilings. Originally constructed as a civic building, the place is now a tourist and concert-goer’s destination. Sean Lee shared some of his photos with me which are stunning:
That evening, the group returned to the Estates Theater for a performance of The Marriage of Figaro, composed by Mozart in 1786 and premiered in Vienna in the same year, to a moderately appreciative audience. Later in 1786, however, it was presented in Prague to frenzied acclaim. No wonder Mozart loved this city and its people and musicians! Such was its popularity that music fans in Prague actually pooled their money to pay the composer’s way to visit and hear the production, which is what Mozart actually did, finally conducting one of the performances himself. Although we automatically think of Dvorák when Prague is mentioned, it pays to remember that almost a century before Dvorák , the famous Austrian composer set a standard for composition that has rarely been challenged, and in some ways, never equaled. Brahms called Figaro “a miracle”, and prophesied that nothing like it would ever be done again. How right he was. By all accounts, the performance was well done, and once again, I wish I had gone!
As our final day crept us on us, all too soon, our group, including the musicians, were in a state of high anticipation for the festivities of our last evening. A concert at the Lobkowicz Palace in the Prague Castle would be followed by dinner there as well, and we knew that once again, as had happened so many times during the week, we were about to experience something unique and incomparable and, for us, unprecedented.
Upon the musicians’ early arrival at the palace for rehearsal, we were stunned by the beauty of the Music Room, watched over by the definitive portrait of Josef Franz Maximilian Lobkowicz himself.
Upon emerging from our dressing room (which happened to be the palace chapel) into our gathering audience, I was confronted with an absolutely astounding sight.
Talking to Wu Han and David Beveridge was the grandson of Dvorák himself, also named Antonin. If there was ever a spitting image of anyone, it is him.
I think we all experienced a shocking, out-of-body experience in his presence. Especially in the period setting of the palace, it was like talking to Dvorák the composer. David Beveridge graciously introduced him, and our crowd, me included, simply couldn’t stop staring at him in disbelief as he treated us to a charming little greeting speech, in accomplished English, just like his grandfather.
As soon as it was determined that Antonin III was not only accessible but lovable, he was besieged by the group, and I must say, looked very happy. There was not a soul in the room who didn’t want to get close to him and have their picture taken with someone named Antonin Dvorák, in the heart of Prague, and who can blame them?
I finally gathered everyone for a group shot, and, not to be left out, “photoshopped” myself in later.
The musicians quickly ducked out and back into our ornate warmup room to get ready for the concert. Sean and Arnaud were appropriately inspired by our surroundings.
It was quite a setting for the musicians: Josef Franz Maximilian Lobkowicz watching us from the back, and Antonin Dvorák III a few feet away in the front row. There are times when we can all sense an experience of a lifetime, and this was definitely one of mine. David Beveridge spoke about the music we were to perform: Smetana’s heart-rending Piano Trio, and Dvorák’s beloved Piano Quartet.
To the best of my knowledge, the concert went off without a hitch. Our colleagues Arnaud and Sean performed magnificently, as they had in every instance on the tour despite its hectic schedule. They are artists in the truest sense of the word: great instrumentalists, deeply committed and probing musicians, and two of the nicest people and dearest friends we’ve ever had.
We are used to greeting well-wishers after concerts, but this sight will remain among the most moving memories of my entire life. To think she had, moments before the photo was taken, performed one of his grandfather’s greatest chamber works.
Group portraits like this don’t happen every day. Notice that even Prince No. 7 is in there as well.
We moved to the next room, which was set up for dinner.
No matter what room you are in at the palace, you are surrounded by portraits of William’s family. The presence of family is strong among them: William and Alexandra’s daughters and son refer to their family as “we”, saying things like “During the French Revolution, we did….”
Speeches began to acknowledge those who had contributed so much to our trip. Among them was Peter Straus, head of The Grand Tour travel company (www.thegrandtour.com) which organized everything and did a spectacular job. Peter’s company specializes in cultural touring and we were lucky to have the personal attention of Peter himself on our tour.
During a break between courses, Antonin came over to our table with small gift for us.
It was a copy of a rare photo of him seated with his Grandmother, the composer’s wife.
He then backed up, whipped out his camera and took my picture. I can now tell people that Antonin Dvorák took a picture of me and I’m telling the truth. How cool is that?
There were a lot of long goodbyes at the end of this dinner, among them a heartfelt one between us and Antonin. He asked “May I call you David?” to which I responded “Yes, and may I call you Antonin?” putting me on a first-name basis with Antonin Dvorák. I guess I can only excuse my obsession with this gentleman as based on my tremendous love and reverence for his grandfather’s music, for all the pleasure (and work!) it has provided me during my life, and that perhaps, because of the setting, uncanny resemblance, and identical name, well, it was like talking to the composer himself.
Before closing this long blog, I owe thanks and recognition to many. First goes to our dedicated travelers, who joined us so enthusiastically and tirelessly for a whirlwind week. Here they all are, table by table:
In addition, I’d like to thank:
David Beveridge, who supplied us with privileged information, connections, insight and his personable company, cannot be thanked enough. He provided an essential scholarly element for which there is no substitute, and did a magnificent job.
Annie Rohan (Music@Menlo) and Sharon Griffin (CMS), who bore lions’ shares of communication with our travelers and were there, tirelessly, to assist during our tour with every need our patrons had.
Alexandra and William Lobkowicz, for opening their residences to us for special access, authorizing and providing for extra talks and informative exhibits, and for our continued friendship and mutual interests in music and the Lobkowicz legacy. The wonderfully helpful staffs of the Lobkowicz locations – Prague Castle, Roudnice and Nelahozeves – were equally essential in making our visit extraordinary.
Our colleagues Sean Lee and Arnaud Sussmann: I can’t imagine playing with more wonderful musicians and better friends. They inspired us all beyond words.
Although the amazing week came to a sudden end, the resonance of the visit to Prague is still ringing loud and clear in my head, and I imagine in many others as well. All during the fall season, Wu Han and I have been receiving thanks and compliments and testimony from those who were with us. It was our first music tour project, designed by us in collaboration with Peter Straus and his company, and was inspired directly by our own extraordinary experiences in Prague, our wonderful relationship with the Lobkowicz family, our working friendship with David Beveridge, and of course our intimate involvement with the music of the great Czech composers. It was an enormously gratifying experience, and it has inspired us to dream of what we might do next in this vein. Certainly, it’s a new product line for me and Wu Han, in addition to performing, programming and teaching, but no one seems surprised at our restlessness and willingness to extend ourselves into new territory for something in which we believe so strongly.
Thanks for reading, and stay tuned.
The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (CMS) and Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) are proud to announce CMS at SPAC, a new partnership in which CMS will become SPAC’s resident chamber music ensemble, beginning in August 2014. In establishing the history-making relationship, CMS joins the Philadelphia Orchestra and Lincoln Center colleague, the New York City Ballet, in making SPAC its summer home.
CMS will program and perform the traditional three-week, six-concert Saratoga Chamber Music Festival, now entitled, The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center at SPAC, beginning in August 2014.
CMS Artistic Directors David Finckel and Wu Han commented on the new initiative:
The concerts that we are designing for this exciting new venture will present the repertoire and artists that are making The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center the most talked-about organization of its kind. Add to the mix a community dedicated to the performing arts, the idyllic setting and superb acoustics of the Spa Little Theater, plus the major commitment of SPAC to an ongoing partnership, and we see the perfect chemistry for the emergence of a world-class chamber music festival. CMS is excited to call SPAC its first summer home, and we look forward to musically and personally becoming a part of the Saratoga Springs community.
Chamber Music at SPAC
Saratoga Performing Arts Center, established in 1966, is a vibrant cultural destination located in Saratoga Springs, New York, playing host to national and international audiences, as well as those from upstate New York, the Hudson Valley, Vermont, the Berkshires, Connecticut, and nearby Canada.
Chamber music performances have been a part of the summer tradition at SPAC since its opening season, when members of The Philadelphia Orchestra performed in a chamber music series in Saratoga’s Congress Park. In the succeeding years, SPAC offered chamber music in a variety of locations and formats in an effort to meet growing audience interest in the art form. In 1991, chamber music was established as a permanent part of SPAC’s season with the appointment of Canadian violinist Chantal Juillet who founded the Saratoga Chamber Music Festival at the 500-seat Spa Little Theatre.
In anticipation of the historic partnership SPAC President and Executive Director Marcia White remarked:
Today we celebrate a seminal event in the history of Saratoga Performing Arts Center: the launch of a new artistic partnership with The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the nation’s premier chamber music organization. This new residency represents an unprecedented investment in SPAC’s chamber music programming and a deepening of our mission to present and promote a breadth of world-class cultural opportunities.
David Finckel and Wu Han, world-renowned classical musicians, are equally dynamic in their roles as the artistic leaders of CMS. Their talent, energy, and imagination have established the organization as one of the greatest success stories in the performing arts; through performances, educational outreach, and broadcasts, CMS draws more people to chamber music than any other organization of its kind in the world. That impact is poised to grow through this exciting new partnership.
We welcome and encourage fans in the Northeast and beyond to make plans now to join us at SPAC in 2014 for the spectacular inaugural year of this new series and to experience firsthand, chamber music artistry and innovation at its finest.
The CMS residency at SPAC will kick off on August 11th and continue through August 26, 2014 in the intimate Spa Little Theatre. Spanning three weeks, performances will take place on August 11, 12, 17, 19, 24, and 26. Artist and repertoire details will be announced in the coming weeks.
CMS Executive Director Suzanne Davidson noted:
With this unprecedented partnership with SPAC, CMS realizes a cherished goal of an annual summer festival presence in the U.S., thereby increasing its audience-reach and year-round visibility as a leading international destination for chamber music.
The SPAC summer residency is an important and significant addition to CMS’s national and international performance profile, which has seen tremendous growth under the inspired leadership of David Finckel and Wu Han.
About Saratoga Performing Arts Center
Saratoga Performing Arts Center, located in the historic resort town of Saratoga Springs in upstate New York, has established a reputation as one of America’s most prestigious summer festivals. Just three hours from Boston, New York and Montreal, SPAC presents its world-class summer programming at two locations within the breathtaking 2,400-acre Saratoga Spa State Park: at its 5,200-seat open-air amphitheatre and at the intimate 500-seat Spa Little Theatre. The summer season features programs by its resident companies, the New York City Ballet and The Philadelphia Orchestra, as well as the legendary Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival and concerts by Live Nation. In 2014, SPAC will celebrate a landmark event as it becomes the summer home of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.
About The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center
The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (CMS) is one of eleven constituents of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the largest performing arts complex in the world. Along with other constituents such as the New York Philharmonic, New York City Ballet, Lincoln Center Theater, and The Metropolitan Opera, the Chamber Music Society has its home at Lincoln Center, in Alice Tully Hall. CMS presents annual series of concerts and educational events for listeners ranging from connoisseurs to chamber music newcomers of all ages. Performing repertoire from over three centuries, and numerous premieres by living composers, CMS offers programs curated to provide listeners a comprehensive perspective on the art of chamber music. The performing artists of CMS, a multi-generational and international selection of expert chamber musicians, constitute an evolving repertory company capable of presenting chamber music of every instrumentation, style, and historical period. The annual activities of CMS include a full season of concerts and events, national and international tours, and annual performances at eight residencies around the world. CMS’ artistry is supported by numerous live-streamed concerts, lectures, and master classes, nationally televised broadcasts on Live From Lincoln Center, an international, year-round radio series, and regular appearances on American Public Media’s Performance Today. In 2004, CMS appointed cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han artistic directors. They succeed founding director Charles Wadsworth (1969-89), Fred Sherry (1989-93), and David Shifrin (1993-2004).
Dedicated to developing the chamber music leaders of the future, CMS created CMS Two, the highly regarded and rigorously competitive three-season residency for the most important chamber music ensembles and individuals, that fully integrates CMS Two artists into every facet of CMS activities. Each year, a number of CMS Two alumni are invited to become CMS Season Artists and Guest Artists, and many of the world’s leading artists, such as pianist Lang Lang, cellist Alisa Weilerstein, flutist Tara Helen O’Connor, violinist Hilary Hahn, and many others are alumni of the program. A Season Artist with CMS since he completed the program in 2011-12, CMS Two alumnus cellist Nicholas Canellakis wrote: “There isn’t a single musical organization in the country that helps young musicians like the Chamber Music Society does with its CMS Two program.”
ABOUT DAVID FINCKEL AND WU HAN
Cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han, Musical America’s 2012 Musicians of the Year, rank among the most esteemed and influential classical musicians in the world today. The talent, energy, imagination, and dedication they bring to their multifaceted endeavors as concert performers, recording artists, educators, artistic administrators, and cultural entrepreneurs go unmatched. In high demand year after year among chamber music audiences worldwide, the duo has appeared each season at the most prestigious venues and concert series across the United States and around the world to unanimous critical acclaim. For thirty-four years, David Finckel served as cellist of the Grammy Award-winning Emerson String Quartet. David Finckel and Wu Han’s wide-ranging musical innovations include the launch of ArtistLed (www.artistled.com), classical music’s first musician-directed and Internet-based recording company, whose catalogue of sixteen albums has won widespread critical acclaim. David Finckel and Wu Han are the founding Artistic Directors of Music@Menlo, a chamber music festival and institute in Silicon Valley now in its eleventh season, and have served as Artistic Directors of The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center since 2004. In 2011, David Finckel and Wu Han were named Artistic Directors of Chamber Music Today, an annual festival held in Korea, and David Finckel was recently named Artistic Director and honoree of the Mendelssohn Fellowship, which identifies young Korean musicians and promotes chamber music in Korea. In these capacities, as well as through a multitude of other education initiatives, such as their newly created chamber music studio at Aspen Music Festival and School, they have achieved universal renown for their passionate commitment to nurturing the careers of countless young artists. In addition, David Finckel serves on the faculties of The Juilliard School, and Stony Brook University. David Finckel and Wu Han reside in New York City.
For more information, please visit www.davidfinckelandwuhan.com.
The eleventh season of Music@Menlo, David and Wu Han’s hand-crafted and now world-renowned chamber music festival, celebrated the legacy of Johann Sebastian Bach, the composer whose music has set the course for Western music over the nearly two centuries since his death. In addition, the festival’s thriving Chamber Music Institute trained fifty promising young instrumentalists, ages 8 to 31, in the fine art of ensemble playing.
During Music@Menlo’s 2009 Season, titled Through Brahms, we experienced an extraordinary event that inspired our festival this summer. As we were juxtaposing music by composers who had either influenced or been inspired by Brahms, one of the concerts opened with Bach’s 2nd Suite for Solo Cello, followed by a variety of works from composers such as Schoenberg, Harbison and Rachmaninov. During the masculine yet poetic performance of the Bach by cellist Laurence Lesser, the sound of the solitary cello overtook the large hall, and we listened to the rest of the concert with changed ears. Having confirmed similar sensations of heightened listening with many of our musician colleagues in attendance, we began to dream of a season where each program began with Bach – a festival was born.
We began our Bach celebration with a joyous rendition of his Concerto in C major for two harpsichords, played on modern pianos with power and conviction by returning Music@Menlo veteran Derek Han, and rising star Gloria Chien. Gloria’s career has been on a steady upward swing ever since she first auditioned for the festival’s International Performers program in 2006. After stand-out performances that summer, she returned as an Institute faculty member in 2008, and was appointed Chamber Music Institute Director in 2011. In the meantime, she won the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s 2012 CMS Two auditions, joining the program’s roster of extraordinary young musicians such as violinists Arnaud Sussmann and Erin Keefe, pianists Juho Pohjonen and Alessio Bax, and clarinetists Anthony McGill and Jose Franch-Ballester. Along the way, she also started her own chamber music series in Chattanooga, Tennessee, String Theory at the Hunter, now in its fifth successful season. We are immensely proud of, and inspired by Gloria. She has outperformed conventional expectations in everything she’s done, and no challenge we’ve ever thrown her way has daunted her adventurous musicianship or formidable technique.
Gloria Chien and Derek Han perform Schubert’s Rondo in A Major, D951
Korean violinist Soovin Kim, also veteran of the CMS Two program, violinist of the Johannes Quartet, violin professor at Stony Brook University, and music director of the Lake Champlain festival, made his Music@Menlo debut with a marathon solo violin concert that left us all astounded. Working his way from solo Bach to Jörg Widmann, with composers such as Paganini and Bartok in between, Kim performed the repertoire flawlessly, and virtually all of it from memory. His spoken remarks from the stage revealed him to be a charismatic and learned lecturer – a talent highly marketable for young musicians in today’s classical music scene. After Soovin’s herculean performance, which lasted from 10:30 a.m. to nearly 3:00 p.m. with a short lunch break, all the musicians scurried off to practice.
Violinist Soovin Kim
Guiding us through the rigorous Music@Menlo LIVE recording process was returning sound engineer, recording producer and violinist Da-Hong Seetoo, who has been with us every step of the way since the founding of ArtistLed, our recording label, back in 1997. Da-Hong records every concert and dress rehearsal to ensure us nearly perfect recordings on the festival’s much praised label, and his advice on everything from fingerings to bowings to composers’ markings is an invaluable contribution to the artistic product. So critical is his ear that musicians at Menlo have turned his name into a verb: to have been “Da-Honged” is to have successfully undergone his scrutiny and sometimes brutally honest interrogation during our dress rehearsals. However, it is all for a good cause, as we are thrilled and grateful for his diligence when we hear, many months later, the final product of our efforts forever engraved into the Music@Menlo LIVE label.
French violinist Arnaud Sussmann once again contributed his beautiful violin playing and tasteful musicianship to our festival. We call Arnaud a chamber music prodigy as when he came to us he had hardly had any experience in the genre, having spent his formative years in soloist training with Itzhak Perlman. But he took to chamber music like a duck to water, and, like Gloria Chien, every challenge Arnaud has taken on has resulted in stellar performances – not to mention that he is one of the nicest people we’ve ever known.
Violinist Arnaud Sussmann alongside Soovin Kim
We could not be more proud of the young musicians who have come our way through auditions on both coasts, and violinists Kristin Lee and Sean Lee are perfect examples. Both extraordinary players, they have risen through the ranks to our main stages in the most challenging repertoire, and for two summers now have proven invaluable members of our Institute faculty as well. Assisting us on stage and in the classroom this summer was returning International Performer Sunmi Chang, who proved an indefatigable coach and equally brilliant violinist and violist in a variety of performances.
Sean Lee and Kristin Lee teach
Sunmi Chang teaches
After a breathtaking Opening Night performance of Bartok’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, percussionists Ian Rosenbaum and Christopher Froh were joined by Ayano Kataoka for the festival’s first-ever all-percussion Carte Blanche, one of the most adventurous programming projects we have ever mounted. Although we knew – because of these incredible performers – that the event would be of amazing quality, we did not know for sure how our audience, which has been groomed on string quartets and piano trios, would react to a completely new genre of chamber music. But they showed up in large numbers, and, as hoped for, were on their feet by the end cheering the miraculous feats of memory, coordination and musicianship by our three exceptional performers.
Toru Takemitsu’s Rain Tree; Lighting by Joe Beahm
Music@Menlo has been very fortunate to be able to partner with extraordinary visual artists, whose work graces not only our annual posters but all of the festival publications, creating a distinctive look and feel for each summer’s festival. This year we were thrilled to welcome the Argentinian-America painter Sebastian Spreng, who spent a week at the festival speaking to our audiences and attending virtually every concert. Sebastian, besides being an artist of extraordinary gifts, is also an expert music journalist, making regular contributions to the Spanish language publication Miami Clásica. In fact, Wu Han and I first met Sebastian when he interviewed me with the Emerson Quartet many years ago. Sebastian’s art was a perfect fit for this summer’s festival, as his deeply expressive and thoughtful paintings reflected our similar musical journey to the realm of the sublime. His stylistic image of a lone tree, for us, seemed to coincidentally depict the role of Bach in our musical history, as the nourishing trunk, rooted in the earth, from which all branches spring. It was a joy to have Sebastian among us and we will long treasure the memory of his presence and the beauty of his work.
Coming on the scene for the first time was the remarkable Danish Quartet, a young group of blonde ruffians who defy their rustic appearance through sublime performances of the most sophisticated literature. Such was their audition performance of the slow movement of Beethoven’s late quartet Op. 127 two years ago, at CMS, that the jury unanimously awarded them a spot on the CMS Two roster. Tapping into that extraordinary gift the quartet possesses, Music@Menlo presented them in a demanding program that concluded with Beethoven’s sublime quartet Op. 132. Our listeners certainly know quality when they hear it: the Danish Quartet, completely unknown in the Bay Area, became an instant object of affection. It’s not hard to like these guys: they are nice to everyone and to each other as well, here enjoying a game of Frisbee on the Menlo lawn during a rehearsal break.
Of the festival’s many memorable performances, there were two solo cello Carte Blanche explorations by Colin Carr and Laurence Lesser. Besides offering a selection of Bach’s solo suites, these two formidable musicians surveyed the evolution of the literature through solo works by George Crumb, Luigi Dallapiccola and Zoltan Kodaly.
Cellist Laurence Lesser
Cellist Colin Carr
Violinist Jorja Fleezanis, a founding and frequent participant of Music@Menlo, offered her own Carte Blanche entitled “Into the Light”, in which she performed music that has lifted spirits of listeners through the ages. From Bach’s E major violin concerto to Messiaen’s Variations, she chose a program that mirrored her inspiring personality and probing musicianship. Trumpeter David Washburn made a spectacular contribution to this concert, as did soprano Elizabeth Futral, making her Music@Menlo debut.
Jorja Fleezanis’s Carte Blanche
A particular highlight of the festival was the Preludes and Fugues program, which, beginning of course with Bach, offered examples of the two forms throughout music history, culminating with a stunning performance of Benjamin Britten’s 1943 Prelude and Fugue for eighteen strings. Making his Music@Menlo debut in this concert was the extraordinary pianist Gilles Vonsattel, who would remain with us a bit longer for a powerful performance of César Franck’s powerful Piano Quintet.
Britten’s Prelude and Fugue for Eighteen Strings
Franck Piano Quintet with Gilles Vonsattel
Of Music@Menlo’s many essential components, there is hardly one more dear to us and the festival community than its Chamber Music Institute. Having grown steadily in numbers and infrastructure since our first season, the Institute (CMI) now boasts a dedicated faculty of five mentors for its Young Performers division (ages 8-18). Pianist Gloria Chien returned for her third season as Institute Director, assisted by faculty members Sean Lee, Kristin Lee, Dmitri Atapine, Hyeyeon Park and Sunmi Chang. In two spectacular concerts, in front of teeming houses at our largest venue, the young musicians of this intensive program delivered inspiring performances in which all aspects – from their stage deportment to their introductory remarks and of course their interpretations – were prepared and delivered at a professional level. We could not be more grateful for our extraordinary faculty’s dedication, wisdom and musicianship, which guided so many of our students on their very first performances of chamber works often of extreme difficulty.
Our incredible institute staff. Left to Right: Wu Han, violinist/violist Sunmi Chang, violinist Kristin Lee, pianist Hyeyeon Park, violinist Sean Lee, cellist Dmitri Atapine, pianist Gloria Chien, General Manager and Education Programs Director Marianne LaCrosse
The Institute’s senior component, the International Performers Program, this summer hosted thirteen incredibly gifted young professionals. Among them was a newly-formed string quartet, the Tallis, who not only performed quartet literature but mixed with their colleagues in collaborative works. We proudly welcomed back to our Institute violinist Alexi Kenney, a graduate of the Young Performers Program who is headed this fall to New England Conservatory. Last minute injuries sidelined this program’s two cellists, but we fortunately found available – and stunningly equipped replacements – Sujin Lee and Richard Narroway.
Now essential to the IP program is the presence of season-long mentor faculty who guide these professional level students during a particularly challenging stage of any musician’s career. Conservatory age brings a host of new challenges for serious young players as they begin to grapple with the realities of the music industry today, and search for their own places within it. Music@Menlo could not have been more blessed than to have, as senior faculty, the team of Gilbert Kalish and Jorja Fleezanis, who gave wholly of themselves to the Institute’s students for the entire festival. Their wisdom, compassion, energy and consummate musicianship set examples not only for our students but for the entire festival community.
Our four Encounters events – full evening lectures on festival-related subjects – have been a favorite component of Music@Menlo since its inception. Returning this summer were four incomparable speakers, thinkers and teachers, each of whom delved into a fascinating subject. Stuart Isacoff, in an entertaining evening derived from his recent book A Social History of the Piano, explored how Bach’s keyboard instrument, the harpsichord, evolved into the modern, 9- foot concert grand pianos we hear on stage today. Michael Parloff, in a wizardly presentation, dissected Bach’s great contrapuntal works, The Art of the Fugue and Musical Offering, and related the amazing anecdotes and history of these two monumental creations. Ara Guzelimian, in his characteristically eloquent manner, went to the heart of this festival’s idea, making obvious the relevance of Bach’s music to people of so many times and places. And Patrick Castillo concluded the series with an exploration of the spiritual side of Bach. Bach’s great spiritual works such as the St. Matthew Passion and the B Minor Mass simply can’t be performed by chamber forces, and Patrick did an extraordinary service to Bach by bringing this essential missing component of his work to life at the festival.
The festival reached an exhilarating conclusion as we examined Bach’s legacy of the solo concerto, all the way from his own Concerto for Oboe and Violin to Mendelssohn’s fiendishly virtuosic Double Concerto for violin and piano. Oboist James Austin Smith, one of the brightest young stars of his instrument, made his second visit to the festival, partnered in the concerto by the charismatic and powerful violinist Kristin Lee. In between Bach and Mendelssohn came Schubert and Mozart, with violinist Sean Lee performing a sublime Rondo by Schubert, and pianist Gilbert Kalish offering a consummate rendition of Mozart’s concerto K. 414. And for the concluding fireworks of the Mendelssohn, Wu Han was joined by violinist Benjamin Beilman, returning after his triumphant festival debut last summer. It was a rousing finish to a festival like none other, which is, very proudly, Music@Menlo’s own cherished legacy.
Bach Concerto for Violin and Oboe, BWV 1060
Schubert Rondo in A Major for Violin and String Quartet, D. 438
Mozart Piano Concerto no. 12 in A Major, K. 414
Mendelssohn Double Concerto for Violin, Piano, and Strings
Arriving at noon in the spectacular environs of Aspen, Colorado, directly from appearances at Portland’s Chamber Music Northwest festival, David and Wu Han met and auditioned the four piano trios of their new-inaugurated chamber music program at the Aspen Music Festival. David writes about this new program, the intense musical work, and the trios’ triumphant marathon concert – the culmination of their studies with the duo and Aspen faculty.
In the more than thirty years that Wu Han and I have participated at the Aspen Music Festival and School, we have longed to contribute more than our performances to the immense musical life of the festival. Gradually over time, Wu Han developed a private piano class, and this summer – my first at Aspen as the ex-Emerson Quartet cellist – I finally had some time to devote to cellists and the school’s chamber music program.
With the full support of the festival administration, headed by President and CEO Alan Fletcher, and Vice President and Dean of Students Jennifer Johnston, Wu Han and I mounted an immersive chamber music program for twelve students: four from each of our studios, and four violinists. We combined them into four piano trios, assigning their repertoire well in advance of the festival. Many of them had never met each other, but our years of experience running chamber programs helped us to match players and repertoire successfully.
A welcome dinner of Chinese food gathered us all together for the first time.
Our wonderful trios consisted of: violinist Angela Wee, cellist Julia Rosenbaum, and pianist Agata Sorotokin (Shostakovich Trio in e minor); violinist Haruno Sato, cellist Jean Kim, and pianist Adria Ye (Mendelssohn Trio in d minor); violinist Will Hagen, cellist Austin Huntington, and pianist Sarina Zhang (Dvorak “Dumky” Trio); and violinist Fabiola Kim, cellist Hsiao-Hsuan Huang, and pianist Steven Lin (Beethoven “Archduke” Trio).
We, alongside the AMFS faculty, coached the groups every few days during the program. Joining us in the coachings were the teachers of our violinists: Robert Lipsett (Will Hagen), Sylvia Rosenberg (Fabiola Kim) and Masao Kawasaki (Angela Wee). Unfortunately, Paul Kantor’s class of forty-four students took so much of his time he was unable to participate, but he will hopefully join us in future summers.
Robert Lipsett, arguably one of the world’s most influential and successful violin teachers, joined us for a marathon session.
Master cello teacher Richard Aaron (here with Sarina Zhang) was an enthusiastic supporter of the program.
And violinist Sylvia Rosenberg contributed an enormous amount of time, enthusiasm and wisdom. We were also so fortunate as to have the wonderful violinist, violist and pedagogue Masao Kawasaki available to share his vast skill with our students.
We formed a marketing committee which included members of each trio, who met with Aspen’s PR and Marketing director Laura Smith to design and distribute posters around town. Aspen is a very competitive place in which to present a concert, with many events happening daily.
Each work presented offers distinct, musical and technical challenges. The students arrive already very accomplished, so bringing them to the next level takes very thoughtful work during which we utilize every ounce of experience, wisdom and knowledge we possess. The experience for all of us was one of discovery and excitement, and the Aspen Music Festival community awaited the program’s final concert with great anticipation.
Beginning with Beethoven’s great, final piano trio, subtitled the “Archduke”, we worked to find the kind of stability of tempi which would allow the music’s monumental grandeur to emerge on its own. Composed in 1811 and dedicated to Archduke Rudolf of Austria, it is a piece that bridges Beethoven’s “middle” or “heroic” style period with his “late” period, combining the symphonic proportions of the former with the mysticism and modernity of the latter. The pianist is afforded the lion’s share of the difficulties and responsibilities, and Juilliard student Steven Lin gamely absorbed the heavy demands laid on him by the coaching teams. Violinist Fabiola Kim, also from the Juilliard School and a student of Sylvia Rosenberg, contributed passion and dedication to the process, not to mention her naturally sweet sound and solid technique. Cellist Hsaio-Hsuan “Sharen” Huang proved herself a highly communicative chamber artist, making the most of the cello part and proving her talent to us for the second time (she had participated in our now-legendary workshop in Taiwan in 2009, sadly abandoned after one year due to a pullback in Taiwanese government support). Although the Archduke trio looks relatively simple on the page, to play it well takes consummate musicianship, and this young trio matured by leaps and bounds, giving a performance in the final concert that stood among the finest performances we have heard in Aspen, by anyone.
Mendelssohn’s famous d minor trio is the first of his two often-heard works in the genre. It epitomizes the German Romantic style, and is Mendelssohnian through and through, from its stormy outer movements to its song-without-words Andante and its quicksilver Scherzo, in the Midsummer Night’s Dream tradition. Pianist Adria Ye – at fifteen, among the youngest of our students – showed herself equal to the virtuosic challenges that Mendelssohn left us, adding as well a naturally beautiful sound and lyric instinct. Violinist Haruno Sato, a student of Paul Kantor, endured endless requests from the faculty for altered fingerings and bowings to maximize the music’s vocal qualities. Unfazed, she sailed through in the end, offering a truly heated performance that was tender and gripping as required. And cellist Jean Kim, an extremely gifted player on her way to the Curtis Institute in the fall, showed maturity and poise in the midst of one of chamber music’s stormiest works.
Shostakovich’s Trio in e minor is one of chamber music’s most popular and often played pieces. Tackling its unusual difficulties were pianist Agata Sorotokin, cellist Julia Rosenbaum (both Music@Menlo alumnae) and violinist Angela Wee, a student of Masao Kawasaki. Emerging from the dark depths of Soviet Russia under Stalin, Shostakovich’s music takes listeners to different sound worlds, and the drama, irony, wit, intensity and sometimes sheer beauty of his music calls upon extremes from its interpreters. Together, we experimented to discover sounds that were expressive but not necessarily sweet; ways to increase volume to orchestral proportions; Jewish folk music style (we all watched a YouTube video of Zero Mostel singing “If I Were a Rich Man”); and the special kind of technical accuracy that the often-bare textures demand. All in all, these three very young musicians accomplished everything they set out to do, and their powerful performance garnered a standing ovation in middle of the concert – for a work that ends pianissimo, no less. We were proud and our audience was amazed.
Concluding the marathon concert (over two-and-a-half hours long) was Dvorak’s beloved “Dumky” Trio, composed by him on the eve of his journey from Bohemia to the new world in 1891. It is a unique work without anything resembling classical structure: its six movements, each labeled Dumka, are essays in Bohemian nostalgia, filled with music sometimes joyful but often melancholy. It is some of the most personal and beautiful music ever composed, and our trio, consisting of violinist Will Hagen (a Colburn student of Robert Lipsett), cellist Austin Huntington (also from Colburn), and pianist Sarina Zhang (headed to Juilliard this fall), found themselves pressed to extremes of expression, communication and imagination that sometimes left them looking a bit in shock.
Wu Han worked intensively with Sarina to enlarge her sound palette, spending a lot of time on pedaling and touch. Will and Austin, both possessing naturally rich sounds and fine technique, worked hard to match each other and piano, and to enable the work to come across as freely and naturally as if it were improvised. The folk spirit, in the end, was the group’s biggest challenge, as our rigorous training often restricts our ability to play with freedom, spontaneity, and daring. As they concluded the long concert, though, we had the feeling that this trio of remarkable talents had reached a new level in their performance, and we were enormously proud to have played a part in their artistic development.
The program’s closing concert took place in Aspen’s jewel of a venue: The Joan and Irving Harris Concert Hall, this year celebrating its 20th anniversary.
Having recorded our Beethoven Sonatas cycle in Harris Hall for ArtistLed, Wu Han and I have always had a special affection for this sublime space. Our close friendship with Joan Harris and her late husband further cemented our relationship to the hall, but if anything really connected me to if for life, it was the famed acoustical testing of the hall – the first by live musicians – that the Emerson String Quartet performed in the summer of 1993.
After the concert, the happy and relieved young musicians gathered on the lawn for a formal photo, each looking their very best. It was a moment to remember.
Though we have departed for Music@Menlo, we have heard from many sources that the buzz about this program is still continuing around the festival. And our students have become fast friends, and something of a star crowd, having received an invitation post-concert to a gracious meal in the home of Aspen board member Arlene Solomon, pictured here with her husband Chester and the young musicians.
Plans are already under way for next summer’s workshop. Stay tuned for a much-anticipated announcement as this newest addition to the festival grows its roots deeper in the Aspen musical community.
In a single, momentous week in May, David Finckel performed in numerous cities in a variety of roles. Here is his account of seven days, including his various concerts and the definitive, insider’s report on his long-awaited departure from the Emerson String Quartet.
Saturday, May 4 Reneé Fleming in Carnegie Hall
The opportunity to perform in Carnegie Hall is every musician’s dream. I’ve been fortunate to play there many times, and my momentous week began in the Stern Auditorium (the main stage) in a concert belonging to soprano Renée Fleming, who had invited us to appear on the final performance of her Carnegie Hall Perspectives series.
In her intriguing program entitled “Window to Modernity”, she presented music from the transitional period between the Romantic and Modern eras, beginning with late Brahms and exploring music generated from the Second Viennese School. Along with songs by Zeisl, Wellesz, Wagner, and Weigl, we performed Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night with colleagues from our recent recording, Paul Neubauer and Colin Carr. Pianist Jeremy Denk appeared with Renée in various repertoire, and performed two pieces from Brahms’s Op. 118. Renée hosted the concert, speaking about the music to the audience during the many complex stage changes.
At the post-concert reception, the musicians gathered with audience members Ronald Schoenberg and Barbara Zeisl-Schoenberg, the children of the composer. Ronald resembles his famous father very strongly.
Post Concert Party- Left to Right: Ronald Schoenberg, Philip Setzer, Barbara Zeisl-Schoenberg, Reneé Fleming, Eugene Drucker, Jeremy Denk, Lawrence Dutton, David Finckel
Sunday, May 5: The Trio plays in Montreal
The next morning, Philip Setzer, Wu Han and I left early for the Ladies Morning Musical Club series in Montreal. A longtime venue for the Emerson Quartet, and more recently our trio, we were welcomed for our second appearance that included performances of Haydn’s A major Trio, Dvorak’s “Dumky” Trio, and Mendelssohn’s d minor Trio.
Artists who perform for this series, which is held in the wonderful Pollack concert hall at McGill University, are always treated to the best of care and feeding.
Left to Right: David Finckel, Monique Prévost, Philip Setzer, Michèle Nepveu, Wu Han
As the concert ended by 5 p.m., we managed to return to New York that same evening.
Monday, May 6: First rehearsal with Paul Watkins, Greene Space performance, CMS gala
After meetings which began at 8:00 a.m. and ran until lunchtime, Wu Han and I welcomed Gene, Phil, Larry and my Emerson Quartet successor Paul Watkins to our newly-expanded living room to rehearse the Schubert Cello Quintet. We were performing the Quintet at both the Chamber Music Society gala that night, and for my final concert with the Quartet the following Saturday.
The last time the quartet had rehearsed in our old apartment, it looked like this:
And by April, it looked like this:
It was the first time we got a look at the new ESQ.
The rehearsal was wonderful: intense, musical, friendly, joyful and celebratory.
Unbelievably, between our rehearsal and performance for the CMS gala, the Quartet raced down to WQXR’s Greene Space performance and broadcast venue for an hour-long, live streamed interview and concert, hosted by Jeff Spurgeon and produced by Martha Bonta. The quartet was joined by cellist Colin Carr and violist Paul Neubauer, who graciously agreed to play with us to promote our about-to-be-released CD “Journeys”, featuring string sextets by Schoenberg (Transfigured Night), and Tchaikovsky (Souvenir of Florence.)
A video of the performance can be found here.
After the performance and interviews, we were whisked past a throng of enthusiastic Emerson fans who had turned out to see my last public performance with the quartet in New York, into a van for a swift trip to the St. Regis Hotel, site of the CMS spring gala.
The room at the St. Regis is elegant and held 26 tables purchased by patrons and CMS board members, each of whom invited their own guests. Our gala chairs were James and Melissa O’Shaughnessy, Joan Harris, Elizabeth Smith, and Erwin and Pearl Staller, and the room was filled with an international collection of Emerson Quartet fans who had turned out to honor the quartet, past, present and future, some coming from as far away as Seoul, Korea.
Within minutes of our arrival, we walked onto the stage to perform the Schubert Quintet, Paul Watkins taking his first bow as the incoming cellist of the Quartet.
After the performance, which was rewarded with a thunderous ovation, the speeches began. We received gifts from Peter Frelinghuysen, Chairman of the Board, and the five us posed for our first picture together in public.
I then took the lectern to speak, paying tribute to the quartet from CMS, and, from the perspective of the Emerson, thanking CMS for its support over the years and the evening’s honor.
Having donned both CMS and ESQ hats during my dual-role remarks (much to the amusement of the guests) I concluded by officially welcoming Paul to the Quartet and crowning him with the ESQ hat.
The event was a stunning success, raising a hefty sum for CMS and providing the quartet and our families – all of whom attended – with an elegant and heartwarming occasion in which to celebrate the Quartet’s many accomplishments and exciting future.
Tuesday, May 7: The Quartet’s last tour performance, Buffalo, NY
Rising early after a late night with the Chamber Music Society, the four of us left for Buffalo to perform our last full quartet concert together. Fittingly, it was on one of America’s most hallowed chamber music series, which this year celebrates its 90th anniversary. We have appeared on this distinguished series many times, and our audience in this quartet-focused town has often included musical luminaries and mentors, such as Budapest Quartet cellist Mischa Schneider way back in the 1981-82 season.
Upon arriving in Buffalo, we learned almost immediately that the Buffalo Philharmonic was to play in Carnegie Hall the following evening as part of the Spring for Music orchestral festival. The city was immensely proud, with signage everywhere congratulating the orchestra on its coming appearance.
The Buffalo concert encapsulated many of the realities of heavy touring: Early flights for all; a lengthy, in-studio radio interview for me immediately on arrival; some crammed practicing in the hotel; an even more hectic rehearsal in which we prepared not only for Buffalo but for Washington’s concert; a very difficult program which included my last performances of Berg’s Lyric Suite, Dvorak’s d minor quartet, and Mozart’s quartet K. 499 in front of a discriminating audience; and finally, a post-concert trek back to the hotel for some Buffalo chicken wings for dinner.
Wednesday, May 8: CMS at the Harris Theater, Chicago
While my colleagues returned home to New York, I hurried to Chicago for the final performance of the Chamber Music Society’s annual series at Harris Theater. Beginning last year, the series has proved a stunning success, and our partnership with the theater has just been extended for another three seasons.
We were very proud to bring to Chicago the Society’s first all-Britten program, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth and the first such program in the history of CMS. On the program were Britten classics and novelties, including many extraordinary works composed at the beginning of his career. Of musicians featured were the Orion String Quartet, oboist James Austin Smith, pianist Gloria Chien, tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, countertenor Daniel Taylor, and me and Wu Han, who concluded the concert with Britten’s Sonata in C of 1961, composed for cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. I played the sonata for Rostropovich when I was in my mid-teens; one of the many rare opportunities I have had to play for musicians to whom composers dedicated their works to.
Cellist Tim Eddy
Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac for Countertenor, Tenor, and Piano, Op. 51
Phantasy Quartet for Oboe, Violin, Viola, and Cello, Op. 2
James Austin Smith, Gloria Chien
After the concert, which was attended by over 800 wildly enthusiastic patrons, we were graciously treated to a relaxed dinner in the stunningly beautiful home of Joan Harris.
Joan Harris, center
Thursday, May 9: A special rehearsal and another important gala
Upon our return to New York the next day on yet another early flight, we welcomed the eminent pianist Menahem Pressler to our home for lunch and a rehearsal with Wu Han. Next season, Menahem, the pianist of the Beaux Arts Trio for more than fifty years, celebrates his 90th birthday with special concerts in some of the world’s most distinguished venues. The Chamber Music Society will honor him with a concert in December, where he will be joined by Wu Han, violinist Daniel Hope, myself, and the new Emerson Quartet. And earlier, in November, Wu Han flies to Paris to join Menahem as a four-hand partner at the Salle Gaveau. I was treated to the sounds of their Schubert as I worked in my office.
After they finished, I invited Menahem to witness a poignant, personal moment in my career. While organizing my music for the coming weekend, I found that my concert binder contained only three more works that I would play with my quartet – quite a reduction from the usual thirty to forty pieces that the quartet has carried annually for so many years. But I was heartened to be able to beef up this collection with the music of my new future – trios, solo works, and a variety of wonderful chamber pieces that I will play within the next month. And once again, my concert folder felt heavy and full again, to the delight of both of us.
With hardly a break, Wu Han and I dressed up to look our best and headed off for an important Lincoln Center event: the annual Lincoln Center gala, honoring the President of Lincoln Center, Reynold Levy, who will step down in December after eleven years of service. During his tenure, he has raised well over a billion dollars for Lincoln Center, and has overseen the mammoth redevelopment of the campus, which included the stunning renovation of our own Alice Tully Hall in its initial phase. Lincoln Center, and indeed all of New York, owes Reynold incalculable gratitude, and we were more than proud to have been invited to this event personally by him. The Chamber Music Society made us proud to have purchased a table, which was well stocked with our prominent board members, and we were more than thrilled to be seated by Reynold with his close friend, Lincoln Center board member Bart Friedman, former Ambassador to China, Winston Lord, and his wife, novelist Bette Bao Lord, and United States Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice.
Lincoln Center Board Chair Katherine Farley welcomes Reynold Levy to the stage
We were also delighted to have a brief but ecstatic moment with two people whom we deeply admire, and who we are now privileged to count among our good friends: Ric Scofidio and Elizabeth Diller, the brilliant architects who re-imagined Lincoln Center to universal acclaim, and who have just been announced as the winning architects for the coming MoMA re-design.
Friday, May 10: Rehearsals, teaching and the CMS Britten Centennial concert
Friday morning was spent in our gorgeous, and I believe now-incomparable, Alice Tully Hall. I personally have not heard a chamber hall in the world, especially of that size (900-1000 seats) with such extraordinary acoustics. And what a pleasure to hear the amazing music of Benjamin Britten in it, with all its ingenious details and vibrant colors so clearly and compellingly heard.
In between rehearsal and concert I spent some serious time at the Juilliard School, meeting with the administration and coaching some ensembles. Next year I will be able to gradually increase my teaching availability, and I am already wondering how I can possibly take on the six chamber ensembles that have asked me to work with them during the fall semester.
That evening we repeated the Chicago program, and once again, the large audience responded with the kind of excitement that presenters dream of – especially for programs of 20th century music. Our capping of the program with the Sonata was a personal highlight of our year, and a great way for us to finish our performances for the CMS 2012-13 season. Although I am usually not one to talk about reviews, I cannot help but mention the three raves this program received in Chicago, and the rare stamp of complete approval from the New York Times.
After the concert, there was a party for members of CMS Now, a membership program for young professionals created by CMS Director of Marketing Lauren Bailey. Approximately 100 young listeners jammed the Rose Studio to spend some relaxed, quality time together, imbibing wonderful wines and spirits provided by Warwick Vineyards and event sponsor The L Magazine.
Photo credit: Tristan Cook
Saturday, May 11: Packing for a long trip, a cello recital, a train trip, my final Emerson concert
After a short night, we were up early to pack for our upcoming trip to California, then Korea. I was at the Juilliard School at 8:30am to hear the dress rehearsal of my cello student, Sarina Zhang, in Paul Recital Hall. Sarina has graduated with distinction from Juilliard Pre-College and will continue her cello studies next year at the college with Richard Aaron and myself, and her piano studies with Yoheved Kaplinsky.
After some brief work in the CMS office (which is a 60-second walk from the Juilliard School) I returned at 11 a.m. to Paul Hall to hear Sarina and her pianist Carlos Avila perform Beethoven’s Sonata in C major, and to hear Sarina play two fiendishly difficult unaccompanied pieces by Joel Friedman. Unfortunately I had to miss her Chopin Sonata with pianist Jun Cho because I had to catch the 12:05 p.m. train to Washington.
My last trip to Washington was the beginning of my historic end of days with the Emerson Quartet. Traveling with my family, I was filmed wistfully looking out the window, and working on the short speech that I would deliver at the concert. Upon arriving in Washington, Wu Han raced off to the WETA station for an interview, and I plunged into my last rehearsal, ever, with the Emerson String Quartet. It was a bit strange, I’ll admit, and at the conclusion of it, we all went our separate ways, perhaps somewhat wary of confronting the reality of the moment.
We have enjoyed an annual series at the Smithsonian for thirty-five years, which began one year before I joined the quartet. There could not have been a more fitting place for me to say goodbye to the quartet.
The backstage scene at the Natural History Museum’s Baird Auditorium was very different than usual. American Public Media came all the way from Minnesota to record the concert, bringing with them their star announcer, our long-time friend Fred Child. I have done more interviews with Fred than I can remember, but they have always been memorable, enjoyable and intelligently conceived. It is a privilege to be welcomed to the airwaves, and now the internet, by such a virtuoso media personality.
Wu Han with Fred Child
After a brief introduction by incoming Smithsonian Resident Associates Director Frederica Adelman, and Fred Child, the Emerson took the stage for a somewhat nerve-wracking performance of Haydn’s Quartet Op. 20 No. 4. I’m not sure if my colleagues felt the same way, but I was mostly concerned with not making a mess of my last Haydn Quartet, and thoughts of the significance of the moment and the sentimentality potentially attached to it, found little room in my brain. The Haydn began and ended without significant incident that I can remember, and we plunged into the frenetic and breathless Bartok 3rd quartet, which, I daresay, went as well or better than it ever has, at a fever pitch, and all the more so because we didn’t have the chance to rehearse a note of it. It continues to mystify me how this works, but quite often in classical music, rehearsals often complicate matters, especially when an ensemble already knows a piece quite well. I think we were all rather amazed.
During the intermission I spoke with Fred Child, who asked the inevitable “How are you feeling right about now?” question, and I responded the best I could.
And then came the moment the music world had been waiting well more than a year for: the transition from me to Paul via the immortal Schubert Quintet for string quartet with an extra cello. Before we began, I said a few words, and as I had written them out, I’ll share them right here:
I have two thank you’s and two tributes and I will be brief:
And now two quick tributes: to my colleagues Phil, Gene and Larry for having had the courage and imagination to re-envision the future of the Emerson Quartet, and
to Paul Watkins, my brilliant successor, for making that exciting future possible.
Please enjoy the concert, and thank you very much.
David speaks from stage.
The performance of the Schubert was everything I had hoped for. Paul played magnificently; his energy, excitement and artistry permeated the ensemble and the entire room. The Smithsonian public welcomed him with open arms, and the warmth of the event allowed me to leave the hall with a sense that all I had helped to build there will continue with strength and conviction.
But the night was not over. Running to our various cars in a drenching rain, the Emerson Quartet and its families headed to Chevy Chase where an intimate party was given at the home of close friends Rob Josephs and Gerri Carr, co-hosted by Kathe and Edwin Williamson.
Rob and Gerri, left
The party went quite late, there were speeches, and I was presented by the quartet with a beautiful gold watch which they had purchased in the Bavarian town of Badenweiler earlier this year, on the occasion of my last concert there. The inscription reads: “To David, the ESQ Time Meister ‘It was the best of times’ With love and admiration Phil, Gene and Larry”
Way too late, the members of the Emerson Quartet, new and old, headed off into their new lives. For me, Phil and Wu Han, it was another early flight the next morning, to California, where we concluded Music@Menlo’s Winter Series with a trio concert. And the next day, it was off to Korea on a long flight, which thankfully has given me the time to complete this very long blog about this week – one certainly like no other.
A partial list of people who journeyed considerable distances to be with the Emerson Quartet during the transitional week:
Bill and Valerie Graham, Charlotte, VT
Marty and Sarah Flug, Aspen, CO
Jeehyun Kim, Seoul, Korea
Judith Barnard and Michael Fain, Aspen, CO
Joan Harris, Chicago, IL
Robert and Diana Hardy, St. Louis, MO
Ben Larsen, New York, NY
Harold & Jann Slapin, Basking Ridge, NJ
Irvine and Elizabeth Flinn, New York, NY
Freddie and Irwin Staller, NY
Harvey and Alisa Eisenberg, Newport Beach, CA
Robert and Shirley Kenny, Richmond, VA
?Margaret and Da-Hong Seetoo, Forest Hills Gardens, NY
?Matthew Zelle, New York, NY (IMG Artists)
Linda Petrikova, New York, NY (IMG Artists)
Shirley Kirshbaum, New York, NY (Kirshbaum/Demler Associates)
Susan Demler, New York, NY (Kirshbaum/Demler Associates)
Milina Barry, New York, NY (Milina Barry PR)
… and our family members
Margaret Lim (Boston, MA)
Kim Lim (New York, NY)
Jesse, Luke, Sam Dutton and Elizabeth Lim-Dutton (Bronxville, NY)
Linda Setzer (South Orange, NJ)
Katia Setzer (Philadelphia, PA)
Wu Han (New York, NY)
Lilian Finckel (New York, NY)
Alisa Eisenberg, Margaret Seetoo, Harvey Eisenberg, Irvine Flinn
Efrem and Michael Calingaert, Eugene Drucker, Diana Hardy
Kim Lim, Efrem and Michael Calingaert, Philip Setzer
Emerson Quartet group hug
Emerson Quartet group hug.
In the space of a few hours, history was made at The Chamber Music Society, as David and Wu Han signed a new contract to continue to lead the organization through the 2018-19 season. This, their third contract, makes them the longest-tenured Artistic Directors since the Society’s founder Charles Wadsworth retired in 1989.
The signing, on the stage of Alice Tully Hall, was presided over by Board Chairman Peter Frelinghuysen, with incoming Executive Director Suzanne Davidson and David and Wu Han’s attorney Stanley Plesent looking on.
Back: Suzanne Davidson, Peter Frelinghuysen, Stanley Plesent
David and Wu Han issued the following joint statement about their contract extension:
“As we put pen to paper again, at the gracious invitation of our Board of Directors, we are both thrilled by their faith in our vision, and at the same time humbled by the responsibility of guiding this rapidly evolving organization. Over the past seven years, CMS has become our artistic home. Our hard-working, inspired staff, our generous and visionary Board, and the incredible artists coming from all over the world to perform, truly make CMS ‘such stuff as dreams are made on.’ We are deeply grateful for the opportunity to continue our work for CMS, and we pledge to the task our lasting commitment and deepest dedication.”
A link to the press release can be found here.
Immediately following the signing, David went backstage to prepare for another “first” in CMS history: the first concert by the Cellists of Lincoln Center, a collection of cellists from the Lincoln Center campus performing music for solo cello, and cello ensembles of up to eight players. As the brainchild of Metropolitan Opera Orchestra principal Jerry Grossman, the program was several years in the making. Although a major departure from the standard chamber music repertory, this was one of the season’s most popular offerings, including a wide variety of works by Villa-Lobos, Gabrieli, Dutilleux, Tansman, Schickele, Stravinsky, Carter, Casals, Pärt and Bach, the Cellists of Lincoln Center brought the house down and left everyone hoping they will someday play again.
Cellists of Lincoln Center- Left to Right: Fred Sherry, Frederick Zlotkin, Dorothea Figueroa, Carter Brey, Eileen Moon, Nicolas Altstaedt, Jerry Grossman, David Finckel
The week spanning January and February, 2013, featured an unusual variety of events which prompted the following report by David, taking followers of this blog along for a one-of-a-kind week in the life of a touring musician.
Without a doubt, one of the things I enjoy most about being a musician is the endless variety of touring experiences. Almost every tour is different, some more than others, and this week was one of the most unusual I have ever experienced.
To set the week in proper perspective, I’ll rewind a bit to Friday the 25th, to my concert with the Emerson Quartet in Salzburg’s famous Mozarteum. Part of the annual Mozartwoche festival, the concert gave us the opportunity to collaborate with our longtime colleague and mentor, pianist Menahem Pressler, in both Mozart Piano Quartets. Menahem, at 89, is going strong, and left soon after our performance for a recital in the large hall at Vienna’s Musikverein. The experience of playing those works alongside a master musician, only a block or so from Mozart’s home in Salzburg, was truly unforgettable.
Andras Schiff greets Menahem Pressler backstage following the concert.
In a truly rare occasion, I bypassed New York the next day, connecting all the way to Minneapolis, meeting up with Wu Han along the way. Why the rush? We had a duo recital the very next afternoon at the Music in the Park series, where we have appeared many times.
We were greeted in St. Paul by the warmth of the St. Paul Hotel, the Ice Carnival in the square outside, and a delicious dinner at the St. Paul grill hosted by our friends from American Public Media. The hotel, the meal, and the company have been part of a long tradition for us, dating back to our first appearances on the legendary radio program “St. Paul Sunday”, hosted by Bill McGlaughlin.
Music in the Park is an organization with a distinguished history, leading all the back to its founding by Artistic Director Julie Himmelstrup in 1978. In 2010 the series merged with its fellow Twin Cities presenter, The Schubert Club, a similarly distinguished organization that dates way back to 1882. The merger allows Julie to concentrate on her artistic planning while the Schubert Club handles logistics. Be that as it may, Julie was still the last one out of the church after the concert, locking up herself.
Julie Himmelstrup is a member of America’s elite society of individual presenters, whose passion, intelligence, insistence on quality, courage and vision have propelled the series ever forward. Her presence is felt throughout, and as Wu Han said, her audience of 500 friends shows up faithfully to hear the artists and programs she brings to St. Paul.
With Julie Himmelstrup
Sunday afternoon’s concert was accompanied by a snowstorm that left a hefty 8 inches of snow on the roads. Nevertheless, Julie’s audience was undeterred, and the church was completely packed. We played on of our “unfolding” program for them, consisting of Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 5 No. 2 (1796), Brahms Sonata No. 1 (1865), the Debussy Sonata (1915), and the Britten Sonata (1960).
Fueling the Twin Cities’s current hunger for music, undoubtedly, are the twin lockouts of both the Minnesota Orchestra and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. ArtistLed’s former longtime employee, Patrick Castillo, is waiting out the dispute, as is violinist Erin Keefe of CMS and Music@Menlo fame, who only last year assumed the position of concertmaster at the Minnesota Orchestra, succeeding the legendary Jorja Fleezanis. Both of these faithful friends and colleagues showed up at our performance.
After a delicious and delightful reception in the company of board members of both organizations and Barry Kempton, the executive and artistic director of the Schubert Club, we boarded Erin Keefe’s car for an unusual post-concert destination: the nearby Super Target, in search of snow boots for me. Fortunately, we were successful, and for good reason, as you will soon read.
With Erin Keefe
Before our departure the next afternoon, we had the pleasure, once again, of taping a performance and interview with American Public Media, to be broadcast on the Performance Today show (check your local American Public Media listings for broadcast times on February 14). Our host was Fred Child, whose mellow voice is now one of the most recognized in radio. Fred’s regular hosting appearances also include NPR’s Creators @ Carnegie, among countless others. The taping, in St. Paul’s historic Fitzgerald Theater included performances of Brahms, Debussy, and Rachmaninov, as well as discussions on the music and on our diverse activities.
With Fred Child and Suzanne Schaffer
After a quick farewell to our good friends, we headed to the airport for our first flight to Chicago, and then to the winter destination which resides in the dreams of many: Aspen, Colorado.
The extraordinary circumstance of our trip to Aspen is entirely the result of the ingenuity and determination of the Executive Director of Aspen Public Radio, Andrew Todd. Spying on our concert schedule via our duo web site (all of our performances are listed there), Andrew determined that I had no concerts between our recital and St. Paul and a quartet appearance in Vancouver one week later. He inquired if we might be available to perform in a benefit for the station during the week, and after determining that all of our business commitments during that week could be fulfilled by phone conference, we agreed to go.
Making all this possible was the hospitality of Aspen Public Radio, which used its good relations in town to make the five-day stay comfortable and productive, among them, our favorite summer accommodation The Aspen Alps, and the Christ Episcopal Church, where Wu Han had flexible practice hours at her disposal.
Soon after our arrival, we met Andrew Todd at the radio station to tape an extended interview, during which we spoke of course of our long history at Aspen, and, very excitedly, of our coming chamber music program at the festival this summer (stay tuned). Andrew is the most engaging of hosts: energetic, articulate, informed and passionate about music. He was an accomplished piano student of the late Herbert Stessin at the festival during the 1990’s.
With Andrew Todd
The next evening, we performed for an audience of seventy-five at an extraordinarily beautiful home on Aspen’s Red Mountain. Playing both the Strauss and Brahms E minor sonatas, we talked not only about the music but about our long history with, and support from, Aspen Public Radio. It was a tremendously rewarding experience, and a great opportunity to provide some support for an institution both expertly-run and committed to quality programming.
After the performance, we enjoyed an intimate dinner with close Aspen and Chicago friends, the authors Judith Barnard and Michael Fain, in their home.
The following day included both a dinner, hosted by Aspen Music Festival board member Mike Murray, and a late afternoon tour of the festival’s school campus. The site is undergoing a $35 million construction, which includes new buildings for practice, rehearsal, and administration. It is the most ambitious construction project for the festival since the construction of the Joan and Irving Harris Concert Hall in 1993, and it was a further pleasure (an something of an honor) to be guided through the almost-unrecognizable school, where we have taught for almost thirty years, by Aspen Music Festival president and CEO Alan Fletcher.
Alan Fletcher gives us a tour of the new Aspen Music Festival campus.
We also had the excitement of a planning session for our coming chamber music workshop this summer with Vice President and Dean of Students Jennifer Johnston. Coming out to give us warm greetings were, left to right Asadour Santourian, Mary Rechlitz, Deborah Barnekow to the right of Wu Han, and Jennifer Johnston in the front.
And now: a departure for this music-based blog. While Wu Han and I are determined to use this outlet to share experiences we consider worthy of the time of those interested in the arts, we have to acknowledge that there is a certain amount of curiosity out there about our non-musical activities. Our experiences during Friday and Saturday were completely unprecedented, and, as they can be accompanied by stunning visual documentation, I’ll describe them here.
Musicians possess varying amounts of both free time and athletic skill. Wu Han and I have very little of either. But that did not prevent us from seizing the opportunity to partake in, during Thursday and Friday, Aspen’s most famous winter activity: skiing. Aspen is truly blessed with a wide selection of ski areas within a few mile radius: Ajax or Aspen Mountain, Buttermilk, the Highlands, Tiehack, and nearby Snowmass. For our once-in-a-lifetime chance to experience skiing at its best, we were advised by Emerson Quartet ski fanatic Larry Dutton to choose Buttermilk, the ideal area for beginners, and he could not have been more right.
For this historic exploit, Wu Han and I were blessed in all ways: with a kind, gentle and phenomenally gifted private instructor, Ned Ryerson; with the unbelievably beautiful Buttermilk ski area; three days of fresh snow which ended just before our lessons began; perfect temperature, sunshine and calm winds; very few others on the mountain; and two luxurious six-hour ski sessions that included instruction, gourmet lunches atop the mountain, and, for me, at several solo runs from top to bottom on various intermediate trails.
Although I had learned to ski in my early teens through the Far Brook School winter program in New Hampshire, I had only skied once since in the mid-1980’s. I was somewhat terrified but did not show it because Wu Han, who had never skied, was more than terrified. It took a tremendous amount of determination to pull this off: although I reserved our instructor by phone days in advance, I had very little idea what I was doing. But it seems the very nice people at the ski area, and in the equipment and clothing shops, had all encountered novices like me, and made it all seem simple.
Equipment has changed a lot since the last time I was on the slopes, and the new skis – shorter and with curved sides, copied from snowboard design – gave me more control than I could ever remember. With a few helpful pointers and a good dose of mental training from Ned, I got going much faster than I had anticipated, and Wu Han, for whom, as Ned put, we had “low expectations but high hopes”, looked very natural after a short time, and was skiing solo by lunch.
Check it out! You are the first to see Wu Han ski.
We credit Ned with Wu Han’s amazing progress. He was a completely supportive instructor, full of knowledge, insight, history, and of course, skied with inspiring ease and beauty.
Our visit concluded with a delicious dinner at Aspen’s famous restaurant Cache-Cache, with our close friends Sarah and Marty Flug. Marty has been a vital supporter of the Aspen Music Festival for as long as we have been there, and has directly sponsored many of our duo recitals. It was a joyful way to cap off five days of rejuvenating experiences.
On Saturday we split up, Wu Han heading east to New York and me to Vancouver where I joined up with the Emerson Quartet. It was my final appearance for the Vancouver Friends of Chamber Music and its amazing organizer, Eric Wilson. Unfortunately, I had to forego the traditional post-concert dinner, always at a different and fantastic restaurant, as I just barely made my 7:30 pm flight to San Francisco with a continuing redeye to New York. On Monday evening, it was time to officially unveil the 2013-14 CMS season.
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