Music at Menlo celebrates 11 years

Creative duo opens a window to the past—and doors to education

The peninsula’s Music@Menlo chamber festival, now in the middle of its eleventh season, has proved itself a world-class institution over the last decade. Garnering both critical acclaim and a strong fan base, the festival’s eight main concerts and many recitals and lectures, held at three venues in Menlo Park and Palo Alto, are often sold out. 

David Finckel and Wu HanFounded by pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel, the artistic and “real-life” couple are on the cover of Musical America as their 2012 Musicians of the Year. But they are equally able administrators, and, as a programming team, used this season at Menlo to explore the long legacy of J. S. Bach.

While known as the undisputed master of counterpoint and fugue, Bach also left a bequest of harmonic certainty, delicate framing and yearning phrases. Proving that ripples from Bach’s Baroque music can be found in unusual forms today, this year’s festival opened with an all-percussion concert that clearly derives from Bach’s principles.

Local percussionist Chris Froh and New York percussionists Ayano Kataoka and Ian Rosenbaum opened the concert with a transcription of Bach, trading the pointillism of harpsichord for the bright woody coloration of marimbas. Then they treaded upon the sacred grounds of Toru Takemitsu, the rhythmic complexities of Conlon Nancarrow, and into the primitive power of Steve Reich, all modern descendants of eighteenth century counterpoint.

The following concerts have been equally well crafted. This week they are presenting their fifth concert, centered on the piano trio, and then on Friday and Saturday, Aug. 2 and 3, they will develop “French Connections,” a concert on Bach’s legacy through the filter of French colorings, culminating in César Franck’s Piano Quintet, described as “a climactic synthesis of French color and German Romanticism.”

A good preparation for next week’s “Die Kunst Der Fuge” concert will be Mike Parloff’s encounter/lecture on Sunday, Aug. 4 at 6:00 p.m., titled “The Art of Late Bach: Exploring Musical Offering and The Art of Fugue.” And then, this last masterwork will be performed as an arrangement for string quartet and wind quintet at Concert VII on next Tuesday and Wednesday, Aug. 6 and 7 at the Stent Family Hall of the Menlo School. A deeply personal expression, and representing the culmination of Bach’s love of line, this is one concert not to be missed!

The season concludes Aug. 9 and 10 with “The Solo Voice,” a concert that brings out Bach’s clarity of timbre in a concerto for violin and oboe, then includes Mendelssohn’s homage to Bach in his Double Concerto for Violin and Piano. To better prepare the audience, the final encounter/ lecture will be held the day before on Thursday, Aug. 8, led by Artistic Administrator Patrick Castillo. In “The Passion According to Sebastian Bach,” Castillo discusses Bach’s sacred vocal writing and his worldview as shaped by his faith.

Building an informed audience

These lectures are not the only components of a preparation that makes Music@Menlo unique. For the general audience they make good on the theory that an informed audience is an enthusiastic one. Accordingly, they have created “AudioNotes,” a series of five CD’s that explain each concert, suspending passages of music between engaging commentaries by the artists who will be performing them. These explications and anecdotes whet the appetite, and can be obtained beforehand and even downloaded from the Music@Menlo website.

But Wu Han and David Finckel embrace the nurturing of younger generations of musicians even more than the education of their audiences. The multitalented globetrotting performers—and also the creative duo behind New York’s Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center—have built one of the world’s premiere summer music education programs. Two years ago I heard Finckel put their mission into words at a round-robin discussion moderated by Castillo.

“At ten a cello was put into my hands,” said Finckel as he described his musical upbringing. “It was like growing up on a farm and riding the tractor.” He went on to discuss his later awareness that not all families were equally musical. “I had a narrow focus, but I didn’t know how narrow until I walked into a music store. [I could see that] people were confused—there were these different languages, and they didn’t know how to find what they wanted… so now we’re all about education.”

Finckel went on to describe how they founded the Chamber Music Institute of Music@Menlo, and how he spends time daily interacting with the students. This year, ten International Program Artists have been invited to study and perform with the festival artists/faculty for three and a half weeks of intensive coaching and rehearsals. I have heard several of them perform at free “Prelude” concerts before the main events, and not only do they attain the most professional of standards, but are fearlessly passionate about their art.

In a video provided by the festival, one young cellist described that intensity.

“Music is one of the rare pursuits—and I wouldn’t even call it a profession—but a pursuit that expands you in all ways… the emotional growth that’s necessary to communicate extreme emotions to strangers.”

Additionally, there is the Young Performers program, with 32 musicians aged 9 to 18 who are trained in small groupings in the chamber music repertoire. Some of them return over and over for the opportunity to learn from the best in an atmosphere of excitement and intense commitment—three coaching sessions a day, master classes, lectures and the many concerts.

This festival is unique in its creative vision and programming, its world-class artists, and in its pedagogical scope, much of it driven by encouraging performers to be teachers.

Full calendar information, notes and videos are available at

—Adam Broner

Photo of David Finckel and Wu Han, founders, performers and teachers at Music@Menlo, courtesy of Music@Menlo.