In David’s words
After a weekend packed with events, each one seemingly more momentous than the last, Monday’s dark night provided us all the chance to focus on the coming programs, to explore and experience more aspects of this multi-dimensional festival.
Wu Han and I largely immersed ourselves in the ongoing work of our Chamber Music Institute students, visiting classrooms for most of the day to either coach or to observe our faculty and artists at work.
The Institute this summer comprises forty students; twenty-nine Young Performers and eleven International Performers. The International Performers, ages 18 to 28, perform hour long concerts before most of the festival’s ticketed events. The intensity of this program results from its repertoire demands: the International Performers repeat each work once, sometimes on consecutive concerts, and in a matter of days will reappear on stage again with yet another piece. The repertoire, which we select for them, includes some of the most demanding chamber music ever composed. This season, for example, IP ensembles are tackling Bartok’s 2nd Quartet and the Ravel Trio, as well as works by Beethoven, Mozart, Dvorak, Brahms and Shostakovich. The Young Performers, who hail heavily from the Bay Area but also include students from far-away places, perform three major concerts during the festival, which usually take place in the Concert Hall at Menlo-Atherton before packed houses.
Monday brought the first of this festival’s Listening Room sessions, a series devised and hosted by our Artistic Administrator Patrick Castillo. Although Patrick has grown to become one of the industry’s most respected artistic administrators, at heart he is a composer with a keen and adventurous ear that is always exploring innovative ways of hearing both new and old music. The Listening Room, held in Martin Family Hall, affords all comers the opportunity to experience a pure, communal sonic experience. In this session, listeners were treated to recordings of Bach for guitar, choral music by Finzi, the Agnus Dei from the Stravinsky’s Mass, Ligeti etudes, and Bill Evans’s “’Round Midnight”, preceded by the brief introductions by Patrick.
Tuesday’s 11:45 a.m. event slot was filled with the festival’s annual Poetry Reading, hosted by Patrick Castillo, Assistant Artistic Administrator Isaac Thompson, and violinist Jorja Fleezanis. Begun by the late Michael Steinberg in the festival’s early years, it has become a beloved and unique tradition in which the audience – comprised of all the CMI students and a large following of the public – are invited to the stage to read poetry that the festival collects or poems of their choice. Following the conviction – voiced initially by Michael and reprised eloquently by Patrick – that the experience of live poetry can greatly expand emotional and intellectual horizons, Music@Menlo proudly presents this event as one of the unique facets of its profile. Often, some of the festival’s most inspiring moments occur, as perhaps a very young student, or maybe a shy one, will suddenly blossom during the delivery of a thoughtful, funny, or profoundly moving poem.
Tuesday evening, after another heavily-attended Prelude Performance, saw the Pacifica Quartet deliver the festival’s Illuminated concert. The perfect program to illustrate the ways in which music can bring listeners into the worlds of composers, the concert featured three classic, autobiographical string quartets: Beethoven’s Op. 135, his final completed work, Janacek’s quartet Intimate Letters, and Smetana’s quartet, From My Life. Each work tells stories from the composers lives, some funny, some poignant, and some quite provocative. Having never combined these works in my own quartet experience, I was more than pleased to hear from the Pacifica how much they enjoyed performing this program, and that it even appears in their concert offerings for the coming season. Indeed, the audience came away having truly gotten to know three great personalities of classical music, through performances that were as emotional and committed as one can hear anywhere.
Even before lunch on Wednesday, our Institute students and public were treated to a fascinating Café Conversation between soprano Susanne Mentzer and visiting BBC Music Magazine Editor Oliver Condy. Titled “The Art of the Voice”, the two discussed Suzanne’s evolution as a singer, and the relevance of the vocal arts to instrumental music.
Before the repeat of Concert Program II, our International Performers presented an extraordinary all-Shostakovich Prelude Performance consisting of his Cello Sonata and Eighth Quartet.
Thursday brought a Master Class from pianist-conductor Jeffrey Kahane, in which he worked with our Institute students on the Dohnanyi Piano Quintet and the Mendelssohn d minor Trio. Jeffrey, always an amazing artistic and intellectual, shared his wisdom generously, bringing his vast musical experience to his teaching as well as his performing. We will never have too much of him here at Music@Menlo.
The evening brought an unprecedented event to the festival: an Encounter in the large Menlo Atherton Concert Hall. The reason for the change from our usual Encounter venue, Martin Family Hall at Menlo School was the Encounter’s unique requirements: a large movie screen. And the person who needed it was our Encounter Leader, pianist-composer Stephen Prutsman. Tackling the subject of how music affects visual drama, Stephen brought with him his own works composed to accompany two silent films: Charlie Chaplin’s One A.M., and Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. Joining Stephen at the piano on stage were clarinetist Jose Franch-Ballester (for the Chaplin film) and the Escher Quartet (for the Keaton). In between the films, Stephen was interviewed on stage in front of the large crowd by Artistic Administrator Patrick Castillo, who coaxed out of Stephen his amazingly diverse musical background, which includes, in addition to the most rigorous classical training, improvising in bars and nightclubs (to put himself through school), composing in all styles, and performing in concert a wide range of repertoire.
The Keaton film, the longer of the two, is especially funny and has a complex plot, which kept the audience alternately rapt and in stitches. Stephen’s incredibly imaginative score was performed with consummate style and virtuosity by the Escher Quartet, with Stephen at the piano, all of them staring at the screen and keeping in sync with the film. It was quite something, certainly the first of its kind at this festival.
On Friday I had the opportunity – the first in at least several summers – to give a master class. I heard a wonderful Young Performers ensemble play Beethoven’s Trio Op. 11, and a group of International Performers play Beethoven’s “Ghost” Trio. Having Beethoven as the composer at hand provided me too much of an exciting opportunity and I wound up talking way too much. Hopefully the students learned something that will help their performance, but I’m not really sure.
After another great Prelude Performance, which this evening included the marvelous and seldom-heard Dohnanyi Piano Quintet in Eb, we presented Concert Program III, entitled Transported, featuring music that takes listeners to sometimes-distant places and cultures. Barber’s Dover Beach was beautifully performed by baritone Kelly Markgraf and the Escher Quartet, after which Jorja Fleezanis and Jeffrey Kahane quickly took us from the English Channel all the way to China with Chen-Yi’s Romance of the Hsaio and Chi’n. Following this brief, mesmerizing piece came a performance of Sibelius’s String Quartet by the Escher Quartet, an extraordinary work that paints vivid pictures of the Finnish land and culture. Filled with sonic effects that bring to mind images of snow, ice, Vikings, the feel of the wind’s icy bite, being rocked at sea in a storm, the work is indeed one of the most transporting pieces that I know, and a work upon which this entire program was conceived and built. The Escher gave it the performance we expected and more: a display of quartet technique that was astonishing – even for a quartet veteran like me – coupled with intensity, daring, beauty of sound, and deep understanding of the work. It was easily one of the best string quartet performances I have ever heard, of anything, and the audience – especially our Institute students who are immersed in chamber music challenges daily – rose to its feet in awe and appreciation.
Following the intermission, the stage was taken by Wu Han and Jeffrey Kahane for an absolutely entrancing piano-four-hand performance of Debussy’s Six Épigraphs antiques, an incredible work that illustrates Debussy’s fascination with other cultures, in this case, ancient Greece and Egypt. Wu Han then left Jeffrey alone to tackle excerpts from Granados’s Goyescas, a pianistic tour-de-force that was given a stunning performance, filled with color, atmosphere, and astounding virtuosity.
The final work on the program was also a Music@Menlo first: a piece by Gustav Mahler. In the 1920’s, composer Erwin Stein made an arrangement of Mahler’s 4th Symphony for large chamber ensemble, and the final movement, with soprano soloist, is a sublime vision of heaven through the eyes of a child. The work was performed with enormous depth by Suzanne Mentzer, and the ensemble, expertly led by Jorja Fleezanis. The concert closed on a calm, and indeed transported, note.
The festival’s second Saturday is always a big day for our Institute, as the first KYPC (Koret Young Performers Concert) takes place in the afternoon. These are marathon events that are led up to by not only numerous coachings during the preceding week, but also speech writing and delivery coaching, dress rehearsals including speaking, stage deportment and complete run-throughs. The YP’s, as they are called, vary in age from ten to eighteen, and although they are grouped somewhat according to age, ability and experience are the dominating decision-makers when it comes time to assign them their repertoire and colleagues.
The Young Performers program is directed by pianist Gloria Chien, herself an International Performers graduate. Gloria is a remarkable pianist and musician who continues to expand her horizons and is steadily building an unassailable reputation. Her recital last week with Anthony McGill, delivered in the midst of her intense teaching schedule, displayed her stunning capacity for musical discipline and flawless performance under pressure. All of us are still trying to figure out when she had the time to practice.
Gloria is assisted in her work as Institute Director by a team of teachers, each of whom is also an IP Program graduate: violinists Kristin Lee, Sean Lee, and Hye-Jin Kim; cellists Dmitri Atapine and Nicholas Canellakis; and pianists Hyeyeon Park and Teresa Yu.
Overseeing the complex International Performers program is pianist Gilbert Kalish, who fills this newly-created position this year with poise and wisdom.
Saturday evening brought a long-anticipated Carte Blanche performance by mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke and her husband, the baritone Kelly Markgraf, in the beautiful acoustics of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, one of the festival’s original venues. Partnered by Gilbert Kalish, one of the world’s leading vocal collaborators, the duo performed together and individually a wide range of repertoire, from Schumann and Poulenc to fascinating songs of Grieg and a powerful, anti-war cycle by Ned Rorem. The evening finished with a bit of Broadway musical theatrics featuring love duets by Jerome Kern, and everyone went away very happy.
Sunday morning brought another extraordinary Carte Blanche concert, this one by Finnish pianist Juho Pohjonen. Music@Menlo has been fortunate this summer to have this remarkable artist in residence since the opening concert (in which we played the Beethoven Op. 70 No. 2 trio together). Juho finished off his stay with a bang, concluding his recital with Liszt’s fearsome Dante Sonata, a pianistic tour-de-force that left the capacity audience in Stent Family Hall agape. Preceding the Liszt was a fascinating pairing of music by Beethoven and Mozart with Scriabin, in a program that highlighted the idea of fantasy in music. We thank Juho not only for this spectacular concert but also for the special programming which contributed yet another perspective to this summer’s festival theme.
Sasha and Kelly’s magical recital, the inspiring KYPC concert, and Juho’s display of pianistic wizardry would have been enough for any festival weekend, but Music@Menlo is not just any festival. At six p.m. Sunday, Concert Program IV, Enhanced, began with the haunting sounds: the suite of movements by Bernard Herrmann composed for Alfred Hitchock’s classic film Psycho. Scored for strings only (for a movie shot in black-and-white), the suite is all the more remarkable to hear without looking at the film, as the sophistication of Herrmann’s writing emerges on its own. Following the creepy Psycho Suite was an equally chilling and more extended musical accompaniment: Andre Caplet’s The Mask of the Red Death, a fantastic work that narrates the Poe story in vivid detail, using a string plus harp. Performers Kristin Lee, Sean Lee, Paul Neubauer, Dane Johansen and Bridget Kibbey gave it a breathtaking and chilling performance. Following the Caplet, the mood turned more peaceful as Suzanne Mentzer took the stage for a sublime performance of Respighi’s Il Tramonto (The Sunset), accompanied by a quartet made up of Jorja Fleezanis, Sean Lee, Geraldine Walther, and Dmitri Atapine.
The concert’s second half was given over entirely to a performance the likes of which has never been mounted at the festival: Stravinsky’s classic, The Soldier’s Tale, performed in its full version, which lasts just over an hour.
Scored for solo violin, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, double bass, and percussion, the piece tells the story of a soldier who is coerced by the devil into trading his violin for a book that tells the future. Three actors narrated the script: Kay Kostopoulos was the Narrator; Max Rosenak, the Soldier; and James Carpenter, wearing a suggestive red necktie, played the Devil. It was another first-of-its-kind extravaganza for the festival, which in its tenth anniversary season, is extending itself a bit in many directions in celebration of the milestone.
Stay tuned for next week’s blog which promises to be just as packed with reports. And do visit the festival web site for reports and videos too wonderful to miss.
*A special advisory: if you have not already, please visit the festival web site (www.musicatmenlo.org) to see the daily reports of the festival’s events and especially the spectacular videos created by Tristan Cook and his media team.
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