The romance between the chairs

Music@Menlo celebrates Russian masterworks, the intimacy of chamber music

It is foreboding, playful and wistful. It is exultant, manic and jarring. Russian classical music, with its complexity and shiver-producing emotion, leaves many with a lasting affinity for the work of the land's greatest composers.

The drama of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, the experimental daring of Igor Stravinsky, the sophistication of Sergei Rachmaninov and much more take on an added level of intimacy this summer when the Music@Menlo Chamber Music Festival delves into the repertoire, guided by this year's theme, "Russian Reflections." For just over three weeks, internationally acclaimed musicians will take the stage in small groups to weave intricate webs of melody, harmony and sound.

Known internationally as cultural entrepreneurs, educators, performers and recording artists, pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel founded Music@Menlo in 2003 as a way to shine a light upon the world of chamber music, facilitating both the public's enjoyment and providing training to young performers in the art form.

Based at Menlo School in Atherton, the festival and its affiliated Chamber Music Institute continue to flourish, this year offering seven main concert programs, four Carte Blanche concerts and three Encounter series lectures, in addition to numerous master classes and performances by young artists. In an interview with the Weekly, Han and Finckel spoke of their pride in how the festival has developed.

"It's like our child, and it's growing up nicely, I must say," Finckel noted.

After focusing the last two seasons on specific composers (Antonín Dvořák in 2014 and Franz Schubert in 2015), the directors turn their attentions this year to Russian music, organizing concerts around concepts like "Dark Passions," "Romance," "Lamentations" and "Souvenirs." The programs seeks to explore the direction of the country's music in parallel with political history, the influence of Western composers, and the extent to which the repertoire taps into universal human themes.

"Like any great music, the first attraction can be completely visceral and instinctive," Finckel said. "You don't really need to know anything about Russian music to love Russian music."

And both Han and Finckel do love Russian music, he said. His own relationship with the genre began as a young man when he studied with the late cellist Mstislav Rostropovich; Finckel was his first American student. Han spoke in more general terms about the music's moods and pathos.

"It's just by nature ... so deeply passionate. (It) goes straight into your heart, connects very deeply to human emotion," she said.

Amid the array of festival programs are the Encounter series lectures, which serve to provide the public with useful historical and cultural context and explain what makes Russian music so distinctive. Patrick Castillo, a Brooklyn-based composer who manages the Encounter series, said that this year's offerings are condensed into three lectures approaching the subject from different angles.

Michael Parloff, who has led Encounter lectures a handful of times before, will kick off the festival on July 15 with "Searching for the Musical Soul of Russia," a talk that will trace the trajectory of Russian music from Mikhail Glinka to Dmitry Shostakovich. He will also take a slight detour to Paris to focus on the Ballet Russes, a company led by Sergei Diaghilev that Castillo said was a "catalyst for Russian masterpieces," among them Stravinsky's "The Firebird" and "The Rite of Spring."

"It's kind of this imposing cultural force ... that a lot of people don't know the inner workings of," Castillo said.

Ara Guzelimian, dean and provost of the Juilliard School, also returns this year, to discuss the music and history of composer Dmitry Shostakovich, who had a complex relationship with the Soviet government. Finally, Stuart Isacoff turns a magnifying glass to the remarkable moment of Van Cliburn, a lanky American, taking top honors at the first Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow in 1958 during the Cold War.

Rather than offer something like the more common pre-concert lecture (which Castillo said often seems tangential and equated to a "side dish"), the Encounter series gives each lecture its own night on the schedule, allowing its speakers to dig deep into the material.

"The house is full for all of them," Castillo said. "That to me is an indication that our approach to doing things ... is something that our audience is hungry for and that they appreciate."

Russian repertoire, and chamber music more generally, is also on the lesson plan for the the Chamber Music Institute, a highly regarded summer program held in tandem with the festival. Students in the institute's two sections -- the International Program (pre-professional artists ages 18 to 29) and the Young Performers Program (artists ages 9 to 18) -- will receive coaching, participate in master classes and perform in free public concerts.

Gloria Chien, a pianist and director of the Chamber Music Institute, participated herself as a student in the International Program in 2006, an experience she said radically shifted the direction of her career. Prior to that she had mainly focused on solo repertoire, but the chamber music milieu she was immersed in at Music@Menlo -- the performing opportunities and the ability to work and become acquainted with professional artists -- was captivating.

"After that summer, I pretty much decided that this was really what I wanted to do in music," she said.

Today a performer and educator based in Boston, she returns to Music@Menlo this summer to work primarily with the students of the Young Performers Program, a group of about 30 that she hopes will have a similar experience to hers. A number of the students come from the Bay Area, but the opportunity also pulls participants from throughout the U.S. and as far away as Canada, England and Taiwan.

Many youth come in without significant chamber music experience, and the program compels them to develop new skills involving communication, collaboration, leadership and generosity, the last of which Chien said is a key to successful chamber music.

"You have to just be open ... constantly be open to suggestions, ideas, different ways of trying things," she said. "Generosity is a great thing, and what we hope to give to our students, as well."

The "ultra-hyper-romantic genre" of Russian music is adored by teenagers, Chien said, and this year they are challenging students to perform the first movement of Tchaikovsky's "Souvenir de Florence."

"We never dared to program it, but we think they can pull it off this year," she said.

Chien is thrilled to be participating herself in the festival's first two concert programs, especially in "Towards The Flame" in which she will be performing Rachmaninov's Suite no. 2 in c minor for Two Pianos and Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" for Piano, Four Hands -- two of her favorite pieces to play, period.

Finckel and Han each have festival highlights they're particularly looking forward to. Han mentioned the Piano Quintet in g minor by Sergei Ivanovich Taneyev, a rarely performed and "insanely difficult" work that the five musicians have been preparing since early May. Finckel is anticipating the performance of Shostakovich's "Seven Romances on Poems of Aleksandr Blok," a piece that he called "haunting and beautiful," featuring Russian soprano Dina Kuznetsova.

The intensity of feeling that Russian music presents seems especially well suited to chamber music, where a few instruments are voiced in conversation like actors on stage. The nuances and subtleties of that conversation are what make chamber music so entertaining to play and to observe, Han said.

"It's fascinating to watch, to observe, how things are done on stage. Every time you have a different group, there's a different dynamic," Han said. "It's like watching people getting married."

What: Music@Menlo Chamber Music Festival and Institute

Where: Menlo School, Martin Family Hall, 50 Valparaiso Ave., Atherton; Menlo-Atherton High School, The Center for Performing Arts, 555 Middlefield Road, Atherton

When: July 15 through Aug. 6

Cost: Free-$72

Info: Go to Music@Menlo or call 650-331-0202

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