In David’s words
The Festival’s third week began with two “dark nights”, with no evening concerts or events; however, the days were packed with rehearsing, coaching sessions, and our daily 11:45a.m. master classes and Café Conversations. The annual ping-pong tournament reached fever pitch.
Wednesday brought the highly anticipated Motivated program, which brought together a diverse collection of music that was created for, or inspires, dancing. Bach’s Suite in b minor for flute and strings opened the program, led by Music@Menlo favorite, flutist Carol Wincenc. Wu Han made (according to her) her U.S. debut as a harpsichordist.
The program continued with music of Schubert, Debussy, Strauss, and Bartok, before a large cast took the stage to close with program with Aaron Copland’s all-time-greatest-hit, the ballet music for Appalachian Spring, written for the Martha Graham dance company. Performed in its original version for thirteen instruments, without conductor, it is still truly a magical experience to hear and perform. Some of us – like myself and Carol Wincenc – actually played in orchestras led by Copland during our early free-lancing days.
After the Motivated program, what seemed like a huge number of artists departed. This is always a sad moment, as we wish all our artists could stay for the whole festival. We bid them farewell with great food and toasts at Menlo Park’s Café Too.
The next day, all of our Institute students, plus the lucky members of the public who attend our free master classes and Café Conversations, were treated to a fascinating lecture and masterful performance by cellist Laurence Lesser. Having recorded all of the solo cello suites by Bach just last year, Larry is very absorbed with them. In this instance he enlightened us on the differences between two versions of the Suite No. 5 in c minor, as Bach also wrote the piece for the lute. The lute’s ability to play chords – and therefore harmonies – more easily than the cello offers us a window on Bach’s harmonic design behind the notes, and Larry miraculously somehow manages to incorporate much of the lute chordal writing into his performance on cello. It was one of those defining sessions that truly shapes Music@Menlo an extraordinary and unique learning environment.
After the International Performers presented a beautiful Prelude Performance of piano trios by Ravel and Beethoven, it was time for the Encounter that focused on the spiritual power of music. Michael Parloff, who last summer stunned our audience with a masterful talk about Brahms and the Schumanns, returned to tackle the tricky, ephemeral subject. He did so with great depth, while simultaneously laying out a thorough background for the next evening’s performance of Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ.
Haydn composed his “wordless oratorio” in 1787 for Good Friday services in the Spanish town of Cadiz, which is located on the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula. Haydn did not journey there for the premiere, but described in detail his challenging assignment, which was to compose seven slow movements, each illuminating the meaning of each of the last seven utterances of Christ as he was dying on the cross.
For the service, the lavish interior of the church in Cadiz was draped in black, and a single light illuminated the musicians and the celebrant. We attempted to replicate this setting in one of my personal favorite venues, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Palo Alto- a home to festival concerts since our first full season.
We succeeded to an astonishing degree, due not only to the dignified and spiritual atmosphere already present, but also to practical advantages, such as a marvelous and willing stage and tech crew, who figured out how to darken the space and position our special concert lights (the “Finckel” lights) directly above the musicians, creating a highly dramatic effect.
But the truly extraordinary part was the performance itself, by a “festival quartet” composed of extraordinary players, who, before last week, had never played in a quartet together. Violinists Erin Keefe, Jorja Fleezanis, violist Richard O’Neill and cellist Laurence Lesser truly gave one of the finest quartet performances I have ever heard. On top of the challenge of learning the nine movements from scratch, I threw at them the Emerson Quartet’s transcription of the work which incorporates many elements from the orchestral score which are inexplicably missing from the later quartet version (I still don’t believe that Haydn himself made the quartet version).
Between the movments, Michael Parloff read brief excerpts from the various gospels which recounts the crucifixion of Jesus, and quote His last words. It was profoundly moving.
Saturday brought another extraordinarily rich selection of events and opportunities for listeners, students and performers.
The early afternoon KYPC concert, at the Menlo Atherton Performing Arts Center, offered another round of amazing performances (and pre-performance speeches) from the festival’s youngest musicians. It is an enormous credit to both the students and coaches, that in such a short amount of time these young players are able to take complete control of themselves and their music in a professionally-produced concert setting, in front of a highly attentive audience of almost five-hundred listeners.
The evening offered one of the festival’s most unusual Carte Blanche concerts ever: Violin Celebration featured four diverse sonatas for violin and piano, performed by a cast of eight musicians, making up four different duos. Erin Keefe and Wu Han began with a sonata by Beethoven, and were followed by Jorja Fleezanis and Gilbert Kalish in Copland’s seldom performed sonata, a work composed in 1943 and soon taken up by some of the greatest violinists of the day. Following the intermission, Ian Swensen took the stage, partnered by pianist Hyeyeon Park, for Janacek’s gripping sonata, and the concert concluded with a blazing performance of the exuberant Strauss Sonata by Arnaud Sussmann and Gloria Chien. The concert was not only a triumph for the artists but also for the festival, which took something of a risk presenting a program so highly unconventional. The final ovation went on and on, and our listeners are still talking about it.
On Sunday, Wu Han was again on stage in yet another role: the demanding Piano Quartet in g minor by Gabriel Faure. Partnered by violinist Arnaud Sussmann, violist Richard O’Neill, and cellist Dmitri Atapine, their performance capped off the Impassioned program: a collection of pieces were inspired by the deepest human emotions, and which elicit charged responses from listeners time after time.
Opening the program was the magical Märchenbilder of Schumann for viola and piano, beautifully performed by Gilbert Kalish and violist Richard O’Neill, who make his Music@Menlo debut in fine style. Before intermission, Gilbert Kalish, Arnaud Sussmann and I offered Dvorak’s extraordinary Piano Trio in f minor, one of his most heartfelt and popular works, and one of a pair of giant trios that he composed just before leaving for America.
After a marvelous party at the Knudsen residence – one of my favorite places here in California – we all went to bed rather late- eager to catch some sleep to prepare for the festival’s final week, which seems to have come, as it always does, far too soon.