Music@Menlo Festival: Transported

Around the world in two hours or less…

Now in its tenth season, Music@Menlo offers a vigorous series of summer concerts, recitals and encounters in the South Bay, along with an educational program whose stars are beginning to make waves.

Titled “Transported,” their third concert program, held July 27 at the new state of the art Performing Arts Theater at Menlo-Atherton, described music’s ability to take us on a journey to lands enticingly exotic or heartwarmingly plain. Festival co-founder Wu Han described music’s abstraction as its key to engaging our imaginations on this journey.

Baritone Kelly Markgraf opened the night with Samuel Barber’s Dover Beach, written in 1931 for voice and string quartet to a poem by Matthew Arnold. Markgraf intoned, “the sea is calm tonight” in a gravelly bass as the Escher string quartet layered their way into thick harmonies. The strings were surging and restless, an aural painting of the sea, but met in each phrase with Markgraf’s direct and simple delivery to pause on rich chords. Markgraf, having once described Barber’s treatment of text and harmonic language as “a wholeness,” sang of the loss of faith, and of sweet air and the moon-blanched land, as the quartet explored a deep melancholy.

From sturdy cliffs and the English Chanel we moved far to the East in Chen Yi’s Romance of Hsiao and Ch’in. Written for the Western violin and piano, this short piece evoked the lyricism and elides of bamboo flute, arrayed amid delicate flurries from the piano. While visibly seated at a keyboard, Jeffrey Kahane somehow conveyed an ancient zither, the ch’in. His chuckling trills and trickles set a naturalistic scene for Fleezanis, who slid around a pentatonic center with a purity that concluded with an impossibly high note.

Departing from a strict sense of place, the Escher Quartet returned for Jean Sibelius’ masterful quartet, Voces Intimae. Written in 1909, it not only has lean measures of “intimate voices”, but denser orchestration as well, with double-stop passages that make the four instruments sound like eight. But arguably, his sound does evoke place, with the sun-dappled birches of his beloved Finland and the accents of Suomi.

First violin Adam Barnett-Hart kept a brilliant polish on his notes, with Dane Johansen inhabiting the bottom string of his cello for a grim undertow. Violist Pierre Lapointe traded insane runs with violist Wu Jie, and in the final fling they may have scorched the hair off their bows. At intermission I ran into the great Finnish pianist Juho Pohjonen, and I asked him if Sibelius would have approved. He said that he liked the last movement very much, but the phrasing was unexpected. There is a curious cadence to the work that is idiosyncratic to Finland.

“Almost linguistic?” I asked.

“Al..most linguistic,” he admitted.

And then we were transported by Debussy’s vision of ancient Greeks and Egyptians, in Six épigraphes antique for piano, four hands. Kahane returned with Festival co-founder Wu Han, and the two shared a bench for six delightful romps through Debussy’s exotic scales, each work a gem of brevity. Wu Han took the top, turning descending and rising motifs into panpipes, and Kahane added colorful harmonies. “For a tune without a name” had the bright hidden quality of whole tone scales, while “For a dancer with crotales (finger cymbals)” and “For an Egyptian woman” held pure magic and ancient melismas.

Kahane returned for two treats, Spanish composers Isaac Albéniz and Enrique Granados. Evocación held low rumbles and delicate trickles, with lots of pedal blurring the ground into watercolors. In “Los Requiebros” from Goyescas, Grannados took the form of a light-hearted melody with increasingly complex variations. It could have been Liszt—a very happy Liszt—drenched in the Spanish sun.

Our travelogue ended with Gustav Mahler’s journey to the afterlife, “Das himmlische leben” from his Symphony No. 4. Adapted for chamber orchestra, the sound was very full, with piano and harmonium supplementing winds, strings and two percussionists.

In Mahler’s vision, a children’s prayer is set to a simple melody. I was reminded of the evening prayer from Hansel and Gretel, but where that is merely thick with angels, Mahler takes his children a step too far, dressing the chill of the grave in playful innocence. Even Mahler describes his afterlife as “holding something for us eerie and horrifying.”

But the warm winds (led by incomparable flutist Carol Wincenc) and gorgeous music made up for that sense of displacement. And Heaven may be a good place to end a tour of the world.

—Adam Broner

Photo below of Festival co-founder Wu Han and Jeffrey Kahane, performing Six épigraphes antique; photo by Lilian Finckel

Events abound in this tenth anniversary festival. This Thursday, August 2, Michael Parloff leads a discussion titled “Expressing the Inexpressible: Music and the Spirit.” Then on Friday is “Inspired,” with Haydn’s “Seven Last Words.”

Piedmont’s own Ian Swensen performs on Saturday, August 3 at 8:00 in a Violin Celebration at The Center for Performing Arts at Menlo-Atherton, 555 Middlefield Road, Atherton. Also there are free performances and master classes daily. Information and tickets are available at the website:

Wu Han and Jeffrey Kahane-Lilian Finckel