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.
In David’s words
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.