This year's Music@Menlo festival takes audiences on a musical voyage to seven European cultural hubs, featuring chamber music and song cycles spanning the 18th to the 20th centuries.
Titled "Creative Capitals," the festival runs July 13 to Aug. 4 at the Center for Performing Arts at Menlo-Atherton High School and Menlo School, both in Atherton. Audiences will take auditory trips to London, Paris, Berlin, Budapest, Vienna, St. Petersburg and Leipzig, the German city where Johann Sebastian Bach composed some of his finest works, including the "St. Matthew Passion," Mass in B Minor and "The Art of the Fugue." As expected, Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Handel, Mendelssohn and Mozart play prominent roles in this chamber festival, particularly in the Berlin, Leipzig and Vienna programs. But beyond these fabled German- and Austrian-born composers, festival co-artistic directors cellist David Finckel and his wife, partner and pianist Wu Han introduce audiences to less familiar works, including a song cycle by Ralph Vaughan Williams in the London concert and Arnold Schoenberg's pre-12 tone string sextet, which culminates the Vienna program.
"Aaron Copland famously lamented that educated audiences only know the 10 most famous works," Finckel said during a phone interview from his home in Ardsley, New York. "I only discovered Vaughan Williams about eight years ago," he said.
In organizing a concert series, "Wu Han and I never believe in programming music for an audience to listen to because we think it's like medicine they should take," Finckel said. "We don't believe in provoking an audience or making them feel as if they don't understand the music. We don't expect everybody to like everything on the program. What I do promise listeners is that every piece we program is worth taking time to listen to, and they can find something in them to enjoy. ...After awhile, audiences have come to trust us."
In fact, as of press time many of the events are already sold out or offer only limited seating.
Finckel, who has performed in all seven of the festival cities, said this year's theme was inspired by "personal feelings and connections to the music" as well as the cities themselves. "We thought it would be cool to paint pictures of these cities, not necessarily in the time of any one composer, but to give a sense of the vibrancy of a particular city. Every city has such great flavors all its own."
While many of the composers have well-known associations with a particular musical mecca, in fact, all brought their works to myriad cities. The Norwegian Edvard Grieg studied in Leipzig and conducted in London, so it wasn't a leap for Music@Menlo to include his Holberg Suite for Strings in the festival's London program. Felix Mendelssohn, who was raised in Berlin and died in Leipzig, was also a frequent visitor to London, where he enjoyed Buckingham Palace sing-alongs with Victoria and Albert. His pieces are included in all three of the festival's city programs.
The London program, which opens the seven-city musical tour on July 14, features Vaughan Williams' "Songs of Travel," a wistful song cycle inspired by the poems of Robert Louis Stevenson, "an inveterate traveler himself," Finckel said. Vaughan Williams draws on lusty folk motifs, a departure from the more classical traditions, as did Belá Bartók and Zoltán Kodály, featured in the Budapest program, and St. Petersburg's Dmitry Shostakovich.
"Bartók got peasants to sing and recorded the music ... and totally assimilated the folk culture," he said. "You can feel the spirit of where Bartók got his music." Kodály, he added, also incorporated Roma or Gypsy themes in his string quartets.
Meanwhile, Shostakovich, who was not Jewish, created a song cycle, "From Jewish Folk Poetry," featured in the St. Petersburg concert, with music revealing klezmer influences. Like some of his other work, it was kept under wraps until after Stalin's death in 1953.
"Shostakovich had big, big problems with Joseph Stalin," Finckel said. "Stalin was totally unpredictable. You never knew what he was going to do, very much like some other world leaders that we've all come across. You had to be afraid of him."
In 1948, the year the song cycle was completed, Shostakovich and Prokofiev were hauled before the Communist Party's Central Committee and charged with writing music that was bourgeois and not praiseworthy of the Soviet regime. Shostakovich had to publicly apologize and change his tunes, so to speak, creating more patriotic pieces. Finckel said the music of Shostakovich and some other Russian composers "is so much about the effects of that country: its climate, oppression, the vastness. It gives you a sense of what life must have been like."
Journeying to the City of Light, the concert program takes on a brighter tone with witty 20th-century pieces by Francis Poulenc and Jean Françaix. "Their whole mission in life was to be as French as they could," he said. Meanwhile, Camille Saint-Saëns, better known for "The Carnival of the Animals," "Danse Macabre" and the opera "Samson and Delilah," was "one of first French composers to embrace chamber music," Finckel added, noting that the Paris program will open with Saint-Saëns' Piano Trio no. 1 in F Major and end with César Franck's Piano Quintet in F Minor. Franck, "the greatest organist of his time ... was the consummate improviser and a master harmonist, moving between key centers in an absolutely magical way, in a way that Saint-Saëns did not."
However, Franck's free-range style wasn't always appreciated by Saint-Saëns, who played the piano at the premiere of that piano quintet. In a display of disdain at the conclusion, according to music historians, Saint-Saëns walked off the stage, leaving the original manuscript dedicated to him behind.
Rest assured, Music@Menlo's pianists will do no such thing. But if festival goers seek a second serving of Saint-Saëns, the first of four Carte Blanche concerts features his Violin Sonata no. 1 in D Minor, played by Paul Huang, which Finckel calls "one of the most stunning performances I've ever heard."
Finally, the seven-city musical tour wraps up in Vienna, opening with Mozart, moving to Brahms and Schubert, and ending with Arnold Schoenberg's "Verklärte Nacht" (Transfigured Night), based on a poem by Richard Dehmel. The string sextet, which reflects on the themes of forgiveness and acceptance, travels from D Minor to D Major, echoing the story of a despairing pregnant woman who is deserted by her lover and ultimately embraced by another man. While Schoenberg's later 12-tone music is not widely understood, Finckel noted that "Verklärte Nacht" is "very easy to listen to," with a "beautiful human story" that "helps listeners along."
Both Finckel, who was the first American student of famed Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, and Wu Han, a Taiwan-born concert pianist, perform in several of the programs and continue to record, tour and teach. Called "the power couple of chamber music" by the Wall Street Journal, they are also co-artistic directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and of Chamber Music Today, an annual festival held in South Korea. They have also led the Finckel-Wu Han Chamber Music Studio in Aspen, Colorado, and have long been involved in nurturing the careers of young musicians, including at Music@Menlo.
How do they manage careers as both impresario-administrators, who organize the programs and oversee the logistics of this three-week event, and well as perform in the festival?
"You have to discipline yourself," said Finckel. "We have to fight for our time with our instruments, so we can set a good standard for what it means to be a musician."
Meanwhile, for a small group interested in extending the journey, Finckel and Wu Han are escorting a trip to London and Paris in September, where they will perform in private chamber concerts and provide music lovers with a deeper sense of the cities that inspired the music. "We try to bring these cities to people through the music, but after awhile, we want to bring the people to the cities."
Freelance writer Janet Silver Ghent can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What: Music@Menlo Chamber Music Festival and Institute
Where: Center for Performing Arts at Menlo-Atherton, 555 Middlefield Road, Atherton; and Menlo School, 50 Valparaiso Ave., Atherton.
When: Friday, July 13, to Saturday, Aug. 4.
Cost: $32-$82 per concert, $20-$35 under 30, with some free events.
Info: Go to Music@Menlo.