This year's Music@Menlo festival highlights seven "Incredible Decades," transporting audiences from the age of Bach through the romantic era to the Roaring '20s and the new millennium. While last summer's seven-city "Creative Capitals" journey featured music from seven European cities, this year's event crosses the ocean into the 20th century, as jazz and popular music coming out of the New World inspired composers worldwide.
Spanning centuries of chamber music, the 17th annual festival runs July 12 to Aug. 3 at the Center for Performing Arts at Menlo-Atherton High School and Menlo School, both in Atherton.
"Bach Ascending," the first concert program, opens in the 18th century, with the first "Brandenburg " Concerto as well as a suite from Handel's "Water Music." Pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel, co-founders and co-artistic directors of the festival, said they are particularly excited about performing those pieces at Menlo for the first time.
Moving through the ages, programs include "Beethoven Launched," which also includes Haydn and Mozart; "Classical Twilight," featuring Schubert's "Winterreise" song cycle, with Wu Han on piano; the "Romantic Revolution," with the music of Schumann, Chopin and Mendelssohn; and "Moscow to Montmartre," spanning such disparate composers as Rachmaninoff and Debussy.
"I've been drooling over that piece for a long time and finally feel I'm old enough to take the challenge," Wu Han said of "Winterreise." Based on 24 poems by Wilhelm Müller, the melancholy song cycle was composed in the year of Beethoven's death, and just a year before Schubert's own sad demise at age 31. Finckel translated the libretto from the German to help her get the feeling of the piece, which Russian baritone Nikolay Borchev will sing. "It's beautiful and heart-wrenching," she said.
The penultimate "Roaring Twenties" concert shatters classical boundaries, with George Gershwin's "Lullaby" for String Quartet, a Ravel sonata imbued with bluesy Gershwin influences, and a romantic piano quintet by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who left troubled pre-war Vienna to score Hollywood movies.
The Korngold piano quintet, which Wu Han is "dying to hear," is rarely performed. Both she and Finckel are eager to introduce it to Menlo audiences.
"People don't know the name Korngold," said Finckel, but the quintet features "themes that show up later in 'The Adventures of Robin Hood,'" which Korngold scored. "This is where that music of Hollywood came from immigrants from Vienna. Thank God we have them."
Finally, "Music at the Millennium" blurs classical distinctions with Mark O'Connor's playful "F.C.'s Jig" (short for "Fiddle Concerto") for Violin and Viola and John Adams' "Road Movies" for Violin and Piano. Calling his title "total whimsy," Adams points to the "swing mode" in the piano part as well as the "tricky cross-hand style" in the final movement.
Multimedia lectures with musicologists illuminate each of the seven key decades, showing historical and cultural influences on music, such as the upheavals and revolutions of the 19th century and the technological innovations of the last century, when radios, record players, and later, the computer, brought music of all genres into the home.
While all festivals have a theme, this year's Music@Menlo illustrates how "music is created in relation to history," Wu Han said during a phone interview from New York, where she and Finckel, called classical music's "power couple," are artistic directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.
Although the chamber repertoire is massive, "we're never at a loss to find interesting ways to present it," Finckel added, using an analogy to the Grand Canyon, which he and Wu Han visited recently. "Every time you turn a corner, it looks different. There's no end to the variety of ways the Grand Canyon looks. The literature of chamber music is kind of like that."
By concentrating on seven specific decades, it's far easier to give audiences a clear picture of the evolution of classical music, Finckel observed. "It's not the whole pie, but it's seven very delicious slices, each one with its own flavor," he said. "I think these seven decades have contributed to the strength of that house of chamber music that we're building. Each of these decades has its own room. It just makes the structure itself stronger and more interesting and more enjoyable."
What sets Music@Menlo apart from other summer festivals is its education component, not only with a lecture series but with master classes, informal Café Conversations and a series of Carte Blanche concerts in which the artists curate their own programs. In addition, the festival hosts a Chamber Music Institute and international program, training pre-professional musicians as well as talented children, offering them an opportunity to learn and perform with professionals. In the Aug. 2 Overture Concert, 11 students in the festival's international program will perform pieces by Beethoven, Brahms and César Franck with the festival's main-stage artists.
Violinist Arnaud Sussmann, who is also associate director of Menlo's international program, emphasized the festival's educational component.
"I've been going there for 10 years and I can't tell you how many summers I've been blown away by what I've learned," he said. "Most festivals you go, perform and have a wonderful time. At Menlo you really go to learn something extra."
In terms of performing, Sussmann will fiddle in O'Connor's "Jig" and play viola, not his usual instrument, in a Mendelssohn string quartet. He will also play second violin in Korngold's piano quintet, a challenging piece with intricate rhythms he will be performing for the first time.
But beyond performing, he said, "teaching is another huge passion of mine." He sees his mission as mentoring talented young musicians just as he was mentored when he left France at age 15 to study at Juilliard with Itzhak Perlman, whom he refers to as "my teacher, Mr. Perlman."
These days, Sussmann is passing those lessons on, not only at Menlo, but at Stony Brook University on Long Island. "One of the most beautiful things about what we do in this music world, or in the art world, is that the skills we learn cannot be just passed on through a book. You need a mentor. You need someone who is going to pass on the information that was passed on to them through their mentor.
"Teaching really helps your own playing, because you have to sit back and analyze things and listen from the outside," Sussmann said. "If you're a great teacher ... hopefully, you can apply (those lessons from listening) in your own playing."
Acquiring new audiences for classical concerts is a perennial concern. Sussmann, 34, uses social media to reach out. In addition, running the summer program for young musicians with pianist and educator Gilbert Kalish is heartening.
"Every time I go to Menlo, I feel better about the future of classical music, when you see the level the dedication the artistry of the young musicians we see there," he said. "Music@Menlo becomes its own enclave, idealistic world for a few weeks and it's all because of the genius of David and Wu Han."
Both Wu Han and Finckel said education has been a central part of Menlo's mission from its inception -- not simply through mentoring new generations but by opening audiences to music they may not know.
"If you look back on Music@Menlo on the internet, you would see 17 years of education-centric and performance-centric programs," said Wu Han. "We're not just looking at music that is pleasing but music that is meaningful."
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 12, to Saturday, Aug. 3.
Cost: $34-$84 per concert, $15-$35 for patrons under 30, with some free events.
Info: Go to Music@Menlo.