July 27, 2013

A Spectacular Spectrum, Into the Light

By Niels Swinkels

Jorja FleezanisThe Peninsula’s Music@Menlo Chamber Music Festival and Institute is now in full swing and will continue through August 10 with a flurry of conversations, lectures, master classes, and other kinds of musical encounters, some of them available to the general public via live streaming. And, of course, several different concert series are being presented by faculty members and artistic staff. One of them, the Carte Blanche series, is also curated by festival artists.

The fourth of the Carte Blanche recitals, on Sunday evening at the Menlo-Atherton Performing Arts Center, was the brainchild of violinist and festival favorite Jorja Fleezanis, a familiar face at Music@Menlo. Building on the overall festival theme “From Bach,” she chose the subtheme “Into the Light,” exploring emotional contrasts in music, which she describes in the program notes as “a language that engages our many emotional temperatures, whether we call it hot or cold, light or dark, uplifting or painful, frivolous or profound. … The festival’s centering around Bach offers us a chance to witness how this master infuses these diametrically opposed expressions into both his secular and his sacred works.”

To honor this year’s festival theme, every Music@Menlo concert opens with a Bach piece. Fleezanis not only departed “From Bach” with the (secular) Violin Concerto in E Major, BWV 1042, but she also returned there at the end of the program — by way of pieces by Mozart, Messiaen, and Handel — with the (sacred) cantata Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen (Rejoice unto God in all lands), BWV 51.

Jorja Fleezanis, violin; Sean Lee, violin; Laurence Lesser, cello; Sunmi Chang and Paul Neubauer, violasUnfortunately for Bach, most of the magic happened on this detour. Both Bach pieces had their memorable moments, such as the intensely melancholic Adagio (second movement) of the violin concerto and David Washburn’s impeccable trumpet playing in the cantata. But the concerto as a whole felt rushed and diffuse, and soprano Elizabeth Futral’s vocal contribution to the cantata would have been better matched by a larger accompanying ensemble.

More-extensive coordination between soprano, trumpet, and strings/harpsichord on matters of volume, vibrato, and style would have made a difference, but here one of the charming, sometimes risky side effects of a festival became apparent: With this many wonderful musical things happening in a short period, the artist-performers are pulled in many directions, and rehearsal time for concerts is always too limited. Spontaneity becomes a relatively big factor in a live performance, but not everything works out equally well.

What worked very well, however, was the way in which Mozart’s Quintet No. 4 in G Minor, K. 516, came together, as played by Fleezanis and Sean Lee, violins; Paul Neubauer and Sunmi Chang, violas; and Laurence Lesser, cello.

Fleezanis and Chien took the audience across the height and depth of almost every imaginable human emotion.

Mozart’s musical representation of some profound melancholic thought process in G Minor created an intense form of ensemble playing that kept the audience captivated and respectfully engaged, even between movements; not a cough or a rustle could be heard.

The intensity of Mozart’s string quintet was surpassed only by the piece that was the odd duck in the 18th-century chamber music pond — and the absolute highlight of the concert: Messiaen’s spellbinding Theme and Variations for Violin and Piano (1932), performed by Fleezanis together with Gloria Chien.

In no more than 10 minutes, Fleezanis and Chien took the audience via Messiaen’s shimmering melodies, transparent harmonies, and thundering chords, along and across the height and depth of almost every imaginable human emotion.

What a piece. And what a performance.

Native Dutchman Niels Swinkels is a freelance journalist, musicologist, and sound engineer. Before moving to San Francisco, he was the arts editor and senior classical music/opera critic for Brabants Dagblad, a regional daily newspaper in the Netherlands. As a freelance writer and sound engineer, he currently works for San Francisco Opera, KALW Local Public Radio, Elevation Online, Earprint Productions, and others.