Music@Menlo founding Artistic Directors cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han | Credit: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

“The Little Festival That Could” is hitting its stride with Season 18, July 17–Aug. 8, fervently hoping that normalcy will return by then and that COVID-19 will be just a bad memory.

As is its wont, Music@Menlo has a theme, and this time, it’s the works of Papa Haydn, the mighty composer of 45 piano trios, 68 string quartets, and 104 symphonies — works that exerted monumental influence on Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, and generations of others.

Haydn, in a Storm During His Crossing the Sea to London, by Edouard Hammon

The festival celebrates Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809), the composer whose genius, industry, and legacy have changed the course of Western classical music over the past two centuries. The symphony, string quartet, piano trio, and piano sonata were both standardized by this modest, hardworking servant of the Esterházy family, who worked largely in isolation in remote northwest Hungary.

The rich Program I, on July 18, features two cantatas, Haydn’s Arianna a Naxos with mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford, and Bach’s Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht — popularly known as the Coffee Cantata — with Music@Menlo debuting soprano Meigui Zhang, tenor Nicholas Phan, and baritone Edward Nelson. (Zhang and Nelson have just excelled at the Glyndebourne Opera Cup 2020, Nelson winning first place.)

Merola/Adler alumni and Glyndebourne Opera contest winners Meigui Zhang and Edward Nelson will be featured in Bach’s “Coffee Cantata” at Music@Menlo | Credit: Glyndebourne Opera

The concert also offers C.P.E. Bach’s Cello Concerto in A Major, performed by Israeli-American cellist Inbal Segev, and violinist Jennifer Frautschi as the soloist in Haydn’s First Violin Concerto.

Cellos are also front and center in the July 23 Program III, “Cellos and Fugues,” of which (prominent cellist) Music@Menlo Artistic Co-Director David Finckel says: “This program’s somewhat quirky title in fact accurately pays tribute to two of Haydn’s important contributions to the art of classical music: one, his elevation of the cello from continuo/bass line instrument to equal status as an essential voice in chamber music, and two, his persistence in advocating the form of the fugue as a powerful musical tool that conveys meaning and relevance to this day.”

Franz Joseph Haydn

Haydn, Finckel says, was correct in his foresight: the cello has grown to become one of the most beloved instruments, and composers from Beethoven to Brahms to Shostakovich continued to compose some of their most consequential music in fugal form.

Finckel singles out on the program the quartet by his cousin Michael Finckel, The Red Cow, after a poem by E. B. White. “Cello quartets with my family of cello-playing Finckels was my first chamber music, and the incomparable sound of four cellos remains for me, to this day, one of the most beautiful in music.

“Michael’s piece includes narration of the tragic-comic poem to the accompaniment, by the cellos, which provides appropriate sound effects such as the hissing of the snake and the mooing of cows. It’s one-of-a-kind and simply not be missed.”

Of the Aug. 1 Program VI, titled “Admiration,” Finckel says “It’s a simple fact that composers more often admired each other than resented another’s success or ability. Certainly that relationship existed no more obviously than between Haydn and Mozart, especially after Haydn declared Mozart to be ‘the greatest composer known to me’ after hearing the work I’ve chosen to highlight here.

“In other words, it’s a bit of a piece of the future, in the same vein that Beethoven composed for much of his turbulent career. The ‘Dissonant’ quartet of Mozart therefore served as a springboard for Beethoven. Mozart had taken Haydn’s Op. 33 quartets as a kind of challenge, responding with his six dedicated to Haydn.

“And although Mozart had died by the time Beethoven began his Op. 18 quartets in 1798, Mozart’s towering works, as well as Haydn’s, were omnipresent on the musical scene in Vienna and beyond, waiting for the next courageous composer to take the art to its next level.”

The Calidore String Quartet will perform and also give a live-streamed masterclass | Credit: Marco Borggreve

Festival programs, besides the eight main-stage concerts, include:

• Three artist-curated Carte Blanche Concerts, intimate recital programs that showcase the virtuosity and imaginative programming of select festival artists
• Three Encounters — the festival’s signature series of multimedia symposia presented by leading musicologists, historians, composers, and musical experts, offering audiences immersive journeys through Haydn’s life, music, and legacy
• Two Overture Concerts that showcase the collaboration between featured artists and up-and-coming International Program musicians
• Sixteen free afternoon performances by the young artists of Music@Menlo’s Chamber Music Institute
• Café Conversations, a unique forum for discussions on topics related to music and the arts, led by select festival artists and guests
• Master classes led by renowned festival artists, free and open to the public

The 2020 festival presents 48 featured artists, including 11 debuts (marked below with an asterisk), among them pianists Gilbert Kalish, Hyeyeon Park, Mika Sasaki*, Shai Wosner*, and Wu Han; violinists Benjamin Beilman, Aaron Boyd, Bella Hristova, Kristin Lee, Arnaud Sussmann, and James Thompson; violists Aaron Boyd, Matthew Lipman, Paul Neubauer, and Tien-Hsin Cindy Wu*; cellists Dmitri Atapine, Timothy Eddy, David Finckel, Mihai Marica*, and Inbal Segev*.

Also bassist Scott Pingel; the Calidore String Quartet, the Orion String Quartet; flutists Amir Hoshang Farsi* and Sooyun Kim; oboists James Austin Smith and Stephen Taylor; clarinetists Romie de Guise-Langlois and Tommaso Lonquich; bassoonists Steven Dibner* and Peter Kolkay; horn players Mark Almond and Kevin Rivard; soprano Meigui Zhang*; mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford*; tenor Nicholas Phan*; baritone Edward Nelson*; narrator Fred Child; and returning Encounter leaders Aaron Boyd, Ara Guzelimian, and Michael Parloff.