Inspired finish for Menlo festival
Music@Menlo held their eighth and final concert of the summer season on Friday, August 8, at the Menlo School’s Stent Family Hall. This intimate venue, like Burlingame’s Kohl Mansion, is an ornate and perfectly proportioned hall, adding sumptuous depths to the sound for those lucky enough to get a seat.
When the performers are of the caliber that routinely fill Music@Menlo’s artist roster, it is also certain to be grand. Imagine listening to a violist described as, “one of his generation’s quintessential artists” or a cellist who was awarded the Gold Medal at the 2011 Tchaikovsky Competition. And imagine those two being joined by a phenomenal 28-year-old violinist who solos with the St. Petersburg Symphony and the Royal Philharmonic?
Seated 25 feet from those bright stars in a resonant hall, it was an exuberant brocade of sound. And from start to finish, what was most noticeable was how much fun they were having.
Titled “Bridging Dvořák,” this concert embedded us in Czech culture, from the nostalgic Bohemian fantasie of Smetana to the rich accords of Dohnányi’s Serenade, and then on to Schulhoff’s formidable response to World War I. Afterwards, we were treated to one of the great works of chamber music, Dvořák’s Piano Quintet in A Major.
Violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky (nephew of violinist/conductor Dmitri Sitkovetsky) gave Bedřich Smetana’s Bohemian melodies heart and youthful fire, accompanied by pianist Anne-Marie McDermott. Then he returned with violist Paul Neubauer and cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan for Ernõ Dohnányi’s lovely trio. Those three, the trio immodestly introduced above, gave a splendid reading full of coy gestures and thick chords. And that was only their warm up.
Erwin Schulhoff, a gifted pianist and composer (and an early jazz aficionado), served in the trenches of World War I only to die in a concentration camp in World War II. In between, he questioned many tenets of music and art. In his String Sextet, which he completed in 1924, we could hear high tortured voices in the violins and the grim tread of war in the cellos, suspended in tonalities that slid disconcertingly. It was a treacherous ground that accurately reflected the ambiguities of his era.
Along with Neubauer and Hakhnazaryan was violist Yura Lee, another viola force of nature, violinists Nicolas Datricourt and Benjamin Beilman, and cellist Dmitri Atapine. In the midst of a powerful opening they had to stop when Hakhnazaryan broke his high string. Fellow cellist Atapine pulled four packets out of his pocket and found the right string, and they were soon able to start over. That stop and start gave some needed distance from this troubling work, but we were soon drawn back in by the militant tread of cello. The center was all glassy creep of microtones, alternating sorrow and bitterness, and then they returned to metronomic figures and the rise of war.
This work was so moving on so many levels that the audience stood in homage.
After intermission, we were given a resplendent gift of hope, Dvořák’s quintet that he wrote and rewrote for four years. Beilman brought an unearthly sweetness to the first violin part. Now only 24, he is already making waves internationally. Sitkovetsky played the second violin, supporting the younger musician and leaning in for tight harmonies with rapt concentration and a comradely feeling. Neubauer and Hakhnazaryan completed the enchantment, and McDermott returned as a piano anchor for the sweeping romantic work.
But wait… there’s more
While waiting to see what magic music directors Wu Han and David Finckel will cook up for next summer, many master classes and “café conversations” from this year’s festival are available at the Music@Menlo website (www.musicatmenlo.org), an inspiring opportunity to hear great musicians musing on great art.
And then there is their winter series, planned to kick off on November 16 at the Menlo Atherton Center for the Performing Arts.
Photo below (from left): Benjamin Beilman and Alexander Sitkovetsky, violins; Anne-Marie McDermott, piano; Narek Hakhnazaryan, cello and Paul Neubauer, viola, performing Dvořák’s Piano Quintet no. 2 in A Major, op. 81; photo by Tristan Cook.