Chamber Music Festival and Institute – July 20-Aug. 11 – Atherton, PaloAlto, and Menlo Park – www.musicatmenlo.org
You never know what to expect from a visit to Music@Menlo, the three week chamber music festival on the Peninsula in the Bay Area, celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, except for one constant – excellence in every aspect. In two days at the Festival, I experienced a free Café Conversation, The Art of the Voice, with opera star Suzanne Mentzer, a master class with pianist Jeffrey Kahane, a concert with the Pacifica Quartet and a presentation on “Music and Film.” What’s an opera star doing at a chamber music festival, you ask? Mentzer was here to perform Respighi’s chamber work, Il tramonto.
What makes Music@Menlo an outstanding Festival is its emphasis on performance and teaching, offering an in-depth experience for lover’s of chamber music. The twelve professional performances reflect a theme – this year’s is Resonance – exploring the listener’s reaction to chamber music. ”Illuminated: Life Stories” was one of these concerts. The Pacifica String Quartet performed the Beethoven Op. 135 Quartet, Janacek’s String Quartet No. 2 “Intimate Letters” and Smetana’s String Quartet No. 1. Janacek’s Quartet, written six months before he died, reflects his fantasy relationship (never consummated) with a woman 40 years younger, a musical expression of the hundreds of letters he wrote to her. The performance of these works was superb – dynamically flexible, brilliantly executed, and emotionally riveting.
The professional musicians here are world class – and they are expected to do more than perform. They coach the participants in the Chamber Music Institute – a rigorous four week program for string players and pianists that recreate the life of a chamber musician – coaching, rehearsals, master classes and concerts. The 16 Prelude Performances (International Program pre-professional artists from the age of 18 to 29) and three Koret Young Performer’s Concerts (ages 9 to 18) offer free events of extraordinarily high quality. The performance of the Shostakovich Eighth String Quartet at the Prelude Concert of July 25th was superb.
Another unique feature for chamber music devotees is the Encounters, two hour multi-media presentations by musicians and speakers. “Music and Film” explained the process of how pianist and composer Stephen Prutsman wrote original scores for two silent films, Charlie Chaplin’s One A.M. and Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. Prutsman and the Escher Quartet provided live accompaniment for the Keaton film. With the audience encouraged to boo and hiss the villain, the event was a hoot, as well as demonstrating the added value that the music brought to the silent films.
AudioNotes prepare the listener for the main stage concerts. These CDs and MP3s, provided free to all ticket buyers, offer a structural analysis and historical context for the works performed in the Festival. Musical examples and insights from festival artists add to the narrative. Radio and theater became one as I listened to musical samples and the back stories behind the “Illuminated” main stage program.
The creators of Music@Menlo are cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han. Both are Artistic Directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and Chamber Music Today (an annual festival held in Seoul, Korea), and they were the first to start classical music’s first artist-directed and Internet-based recording company—Artist-Led—in 1997. They perform together, and Finckel is the cellist of the Emerson Quartet.The Festival’s incredible success in its first decade is reflected by the 15,000 total annual attendance, the 171 artists who have performed on the main stage and coached in the Institute, and the 250 Chamber Music Institute participants, some of whom have gone on to professional careers. Music@Menlo is an incredible opportunity for anyone who wants to experience chamber music at its finest.
Craft Recordings/Varèse Sarabande release a stunning updated vinyl of Starship Troopers.