Music@Menlo Explores the Geography of Chamber Music

Janos Gereben on July 3, 2018
Music@Menlo's "Creative Capitals" season

Music@Menlo’s 16th season in Atherton and Menlo Park, July 13–Aug. 4, will be a virtual tour of seven European cities: London, Paris, St. Petersburg, Leipzig, Berlin, Budapest, and Vienna.

Each of these cultural epicenters will anchor one of the festival’s mainstage programs, which will feature music associated with the cities. Festival Artistic Directors Wu Han and David Finckel explain the theme:

A city is the embodiment of a civilized society. Throughout history, cities have enticed our most brilliant, visionary, and restless souls seeking to pursue artistic destinies in stimulating environments. Great cities are indisputably among the most significant achievements of humankind, works of art in themselves... The music that has emanated from these cultural centers largely forms the canon of Western music, comprising an astonishingly diverse repertoire spanning some 300 years.

Artistic Directors cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han in performance | Credit: Tristan Cook

For example, the opening mainstage concert, on July 14, features London and picks up on the 18th- and 19th-century cultural flowering of the city and the influx of great composers from the continent as London became one of the Western world’s musical capitals. Music@Menlo juxtaposes expatriate masters Handel, Mendelssohn, and Grieg with pieces by two homegrown voices of English music’s renaissance, Britten’s Suite for Violin and Piano, Op. 6, and Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Songs of Travel.

How was the festival program put together? Are locations the chicken and music the egg? And which came first?

Music@Menlo Artistic Administrator Nathan Paer says the decisive factor was the music emanting from the cities: “David and Wu Han looked at the entirety of the canon of Western chamber music, and from there, explored various ways of presenting some of the best music that came out of the largest musical-powerhouse cities, often at the center of these country’s cultural lives.”

Eine kleine music festival in Vienna: the Donauinselfest or Danube Island Festival

The cities included are mostly capitals — the season is called “Creative Capitals” — notwithstanding the inclusion of Leipzig and St. Petersburg, the former never a capital, the latter only a long time ago. Thousand-year-old Leipzig is Saxony’s biggest city, but the capital was Dresden, which would have made a fine choice for the festival. What all of the selected cities have in common is a distinguished history of classical music.

According to Paer:

For Leipzig, Berlin, and Vienna, there is little explanation required, as Germany and Austria were the powerhouses of classical and Romantic music for nearly two centuries, with the likes of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Brahms, Schumann, etc. setting the global and historical standards for composing music in these eras.

With London, we looked at how expatriate composers often made the city their home, so even though, say, Handel was not English, he ultimately settled in London and composed much of his music for his English patrons. His work is juxtaposed with the likes of Vaughan-Williams, who was an English-born composer.

Paris is a no-brainer, as an artistic and cultural center of Europe, also with its own slice of very distinctly national compositions/composers. St. Petersburg was home to the country’s foremost conservatory, where Russian composers began to define their own uniquely national style of composing. Budapest, as the capital of Hungary, functioned as a similar center of gravity for Hungarian musicians, where groups of composers also worked to define the nationalist Hungarian style — with a very large emphasis on folk music traditions.

The St. Petersburg program, on July 21, will have music by Glinka, Arensky, Balakirev, and Shostakovich. Typical of the festival’s star power, musicians performing in this concert include Lyubov Petrova, soprano; Sara Couden, contralto; Kang Wang, tenor; Demarre McGill, flute; Stephen Taylor, oboe; Jose Franch-Ballester, clarinet; Peter Kolkay, bassoon; Kevin Rivard, horn; Michael Brown, Gilbert Kalish, Wu Han, pianos; Aaron Boyd, Arnaud Sussmann, violins; Matthew Lipman, Paul Neubauer, violas; David Finckel, David Requiro, cellos; Scott Pingel, bass.

The Budapest Franz Liszt Music Academy (Zeneakadémia"), founded by the composer in 1875 and named for him

The Budapest program, July 31, is another example of Wu Han and Finckel’s consistent and fearless dedication to modernist masterworks, set against classics, which always get their due. From the country that drew Haydn, Mozart, and Brahms to the folk music of Central Europe, Music@Menlo highlights Kodály’s Duo for Violin and Cello; Dohnányi’s Sextet in C Major for Winds, Strings, and Piano; Bartók’s String Quartet no. 5; and Ligeti’s Ballad and Dance for Two Violins.

Beyond the mainstage concert programs, the festival offers artist-curated Carte Blanche Concerts; a new Overture Concerts series with world-renowned artists working and performing with the young International Program musicians; 18 free performances by young artists of Music@Menlo’s Chamber Music Institute; free master classes and Café Conversations.

A Carte Blanche event with special attraction is the Calidore String Quartet’s celebration of Vienna on July 19 — Haydn’s String Quartet in G Major, Op. 54; Beethoven’s String Quartet in C Major, Op. 59, no. 3, Razumovsky; Webern’s Fünf Sätze, Op. 5, and Langsamer Satz for String Quartet.

David Finckel leads a master class, part of Music@Menlo's large-scale, multifaceted institute. | Credit: Music@Menlo