Interval

Apologies for the long gap between my last post, on January 19, and this one. My excuse, if you need one, is that there was not enough to write about in February, and far too much in March and early April. I will try to put together a lengthy posting in the next few days describing some of the marvelous things I saw and heard during the past three weeks, when I was staying in Berlin and going out almost every night. But for now let me just observe that this gap points out the way in which regular cultural blogs—or, for that matter, daily or weekly reviews in print format—are somewhat untrue to the way art actually works on us. Good art, art that is truly worth writing about, comes in spurts: nothing much for a very long time, and then such a profusion, such an intensity of experience, that it barely leaves room to put pen to paper (or, in this case, fingers to keyboard).

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Dramatic Music

Two different kinds of dramatic music were paired at last weekend’s San Francisco Symphony concerts, and both were a success, though in very different ways. One had plot, characters, words, even narration—a veritable orgy of theatrical elements. The other, though it had vocalists, was dramatic in almost entirely musical terms. It allowed us to experience the whole arc of a theatrical event, culminating in an intense and accessible climax. It gave us the theatrical satisfactions of motion, of conflict, of change. And yet it did so without a single comprehensible word.

That wordless piece was John Adams’s Grand Pianola Music, conducted on the Davies Hall stage by the man who composed it thirty-two years ago. It featured two grand pianos (grandly played by Marc-André Hamelin and Orli Shaham), three vocalists (a trio of two sopranos and an alto who call themselves Synergy Vocalists), and a range of background instruments—including tuba, glockenspiel, piccolo, tambourine, and a number of other brass, woodwinds, and percussion—that veered forward into solos at unexpected moments. The sensibility was, to begin with, Minimalist, with a lot of repetition and near-repetition, especially on the pianos and in the vocalists’ non-meaningful syllables. But it eventually modulated into something more complicated and overpowering than that. Its thirty-minute length seemed like no time and all time: we had clearly been somewhere, by the time we got to the end, but the visit we paid was to no country any of us had ever seen before—at once melodic and dissonant, harsh and tender, archaic and new. It felt to me like the work of a brilliant young man who was putting everything he had into a single piece and hoping it would work.  It did.

The second and last piece on the program was a concert version of Stravinsky’s 1918 L’histoire du soldat, rendered into English so that it could be taken in like a musical play—something like Peter and the Wolf, say, though without Prokofiev’s obsessively instrumentalized characters. The Stravinsky was a party piece in every sense of the word, part of the Symphony’s weeks-long celebration of Michael Tilson Thomas’s 70th birthday. MTT, who conducted the whole performance, also briefly played the role of The King; the other parts were spoken by Elvis Costello (The Narrator), Malcolm McDowell (The Devil), and a talented young Bay Area actor named Nick Gabriel (The Soldier). The band was small but lively, with only seven musicians making enough good music, both incidental and pointedly lyrical, to carry the whole show, even had there not been a complicated folktale plot to follow.

Everyone’s performance was both casual and professional—a difficult feat to pull off, and one that made the audience feel as if we too had been brought into the small circle of this work’s early performances, in nightclubs during the First World War. The sound was jazz transmuted through some alien sensibility, somewhat as if a multi-talented Martian had come down to earth, decided become a jazz musician and, amazingly, pulled it off. This phenomenon was well explained by the program note, in which Stravinsky himself was quoted as saying that at the time he composed this piece, “My knowledge of jazz was derived exclusively from copies of sheet music, and as I had never actually heard any of the music performed, I borrowed its rhythmic style not as played, but as written.” A curiosity, perhaps, but one well worth reviving, as the delightful SFS performance amply proved.

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SoundBox

There’s a wonderful new place to listen to music in San Francisco, and it’s called SoundBox. Formerly an acoustically dead rehearsal area at the back of Davies Hall, it has been transformed through the miracles of deconstructed architecture, rock-concert lighting, bartenders-in-attendance, and the remarkable Meyer Sound Constellation system into a terrific setting for the San Francisco Symphony’s most experimental evenings.

I missed the December opening of this novelty, but I caught the January program on Saturday night, and it was fun from beginning to end. In order to get a seat (because at only $25 a ticket you are not guaranteed one), my companions and I arrived when the doors opened at 8:00 and had an hour to sit admiring the setting as we drank the cunningly curated cocktails. This is one of the great innovations:  as at Le Poisson Rouge and Subculture in New York, SoundBox allows you to drink while you listen to classical music.

But SoundBox dwarfs those New York spaces. A massive, bare-bones, concrete-reinforced elongated cube, multiple stories in height, it has the feel of one of those converted Berlin warehouses devoted to art. Tables with adjoining stools and a series of round padded benches are sprinkled across the floor, leaving ample space in between for those who come late and have to stand with their drinks. The bar is at the back of the room and remains pleasingly inert during the actual performances. One stage is along the side and the other at the front, and the audience can turn to face them as they’re alternately used for the evening’s chamber-sized performances. Behind each stage are several screens on which images, light-shows, and words can be projected.

The performance I attended was led by Joshua Gersen, a young conductor who recently finished a stint as MTT’s assistant at the New World Symphony. His introductions were lively, intelligent, and to the point, as were those of the individual performers (and, in one case, composer) featured during the evening.  There was a clear effort to connect with the audience, but it was never condescending; the conversation was simply part of the whole friendly atmosphere. The musical program, in order of appearance, consisted of selections from John Adams’s Shaker Loops; two movements from Mark Volkert’s Serenade (Volkert is an SFS violinist and was there to introduce as well as play in his composition); the whole of Heinrich Biber’s Battalia; part of Bach’s glorious First Cello Suite, plus a very recent Irish-inflected cello solo by Mark Summer (both gorgeously performed by SFS cellist Amos Yang); a sequence of songs from Britten’s Les Illuminations, with the Rimbaud words sung by visiting tenor Nicholas Phan; and the whole of Milhaud’s Le Boef sur le Toit, originally intended as the soundtrack for a Charlie Chaplin movie but hijacked by Jean Cocteau for a ballet.

The evening was labeled “Curiosities,” and both the twentieth-century Milhaud and the seventeenth-century Biber fell squarely into this category; the others pieces were just, to one degree or another, appealing and in some cases great pieces of music. My only real complaint is about the excerpting (it was painful to hear the Bach cut off in its prime), but I fear it is necessary to the kind of wide-ranging program SoundBox envisions—that is, you can’t cover this amount of new ground without cutting out length. And even with the cuts, the evening lasted until well after eleven, which lent it part of its excitement in this otherwise early-closing town.

Far from diluting my ability to listen, I found that the drinks, the talk (both from the stage and, during the intermissions, with my companions), and the lighting effects all enhanced the musical experience. It was great to be attending a classical concert with the kind of crowd—a young, attentive, but not overly serious crowd—that could afford the $25 tickets. Being in that huge space was marvelous, and getting to hear acoustically perfect music in it was amazing: a gift to concert-goers everywhere provided by Helen and John Meyer and their stunning invention. If this is the future of classical music, I am all for it.

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Shostakovich Redux

When you spend years writing a biography of a creative figure and thinking about everything he did, you might expect to be sick of him once the job is over. I thought I might be done with Shostakovich when I finished Music for Silenced Voices. But I was wrong. Whenever I hear his great music again, the love for him that got me to write the book in the first place surges back, and I feel I will never reach the end of him.

This realization struck home twice in this past month: once at the performance of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at the Metropolitan Opera, and once at a concert titled “Shostakovich Reflected” that the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center put on in Alice Tully Hall. In each case, I was reminded how much Shostakovich is and always will be my guy: how proud I am of him, how much I sympathize with the conflicts that wracked him, and how little I will ever fully come to grips with the extent of his genius.

I had only seen a filmed performance of Lady Macbeth before, so this live production, though it had its shortcomings, was a revelation. The cast was superb, as actors as well as singers, and the Met orchestra couldn’t have been better. Musically, I was on the edge of my seat the whole time. If Graham Vick’s direction left me cold—not to mention confused, with its achronological intrusions and overdone gestures—that was a minor problem compared to the strength of the opera itself. I could easily have watched the whole thing two or three times, despite the nonsensically Magritte-like sets and the distractingly silly costumes, which were especially harmful to the serious emotions of the second act. Vick appeared to have read the killing Pravda review of the 1936 Moscow performance (which alleged that “love was smeared all over everything in the most vulgar manner possible”) and to have taken this message to heart as a kind of directorial instruction. But despite his best efforts, he couldn’t ruin the opera, for at every moment Shostakovich came to the rescue. There was not a single inert moment in the entire score; the excitingly dissonant, profoundly melodic, utterly surprising music was doing something new and fascinating at every turn. It only made me the sadder that this, Shostakovich’s second opera, was also his last—finished when he was less than thirty, and doomed to remain the final symbol of a powerfully original path not taken.

The Chamber Music Society concert later in the month featured two pieces by Shostakovich: a relative rarity, the “Seven Romances” (a 1967 song cycle that signaled a late return to his writing for the human voice), and the incomparably beautiful Second Piano Trio of 1944. I was happy to hear the “Seven Romances” —this, too, was something I had never heard in a concert hall before—but it was not, I felt, vintage Shostakovich. The piano trio was and is. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this is one of my favorite pieces of twentieth-century music:  every time I hear it, and especially when I hear it live, it seems even more wonderful to me, with its strange combinations of pathos and humor, brilliance and simplicity, vigor and silence. The three young musicians who played it this time—Soyean Kate Lee on the piano, Yura Lee on the violin, and Jakob Koranyi on the cello—did it as well as I have ever heard it done, and that is saying a great deal. Shostakovich himself was the work’s first pianist, and I own that recording, which I treasure. But a recording can never be more than a frozen object, and so I was exceedingly grateful to the CMS performers for bringing the piece to life yet again.

 

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A Dreamlike Alcina

Ever since I saw an incredible production of Handel’s Alcina at the San Francisco Opera about a dozen years ago, it has been one of my very favorite operas. I listen to the CDs all the time (I have the historically inaccurate but wonderful Joan Sutherland recording), and I try to catch up with live versions whenever I can. When I saw that Carnegie Hall was presenting a concert version last Sunday, I couldn’t resist, though I figured it would just be a faint reminder of what I loved about the full-fledged opera.

Boy, was I in for a surprise. This Carnegie performance of Alcina, put on by Harry Bicket’s English Concert and an enviable roster of great soloists, has now upstaged the marvelous San Francisco opera performance in my greatest-hits-ever list. It’s not just that the musicians were excellent and the acoustics better than anything I’ve ever heard in an opera house. It’s not just that Bicket and his soloists wisely decided to do a “semi-staged” version, in which the singers acted out their roles with facial expressions and evocative gestures, even as they wore concert clothes and carried scores. It’s that, moment by moment, this was the most emotionally gripping, powerfully dramatic version of the opera I’ve ever seen. It turns out that Handel doesn’t need sets or even costumes to come across; he just needs highly intelligent, remarkably skilled performers.

Top of the list was Joyce DiDonato as Alcina herself. I didn’t recall this sorceress role as being so much the center of the opera that bore her name, but DiDonato certainly made it that. She has always had a beautiful voice, but in this case her singing was magical: she captured every one of us in the audience, just as a sorceress should, so that in the silences between her quiet notes you could actually hear nothing—not a pin dropping, not a program rustling, not a cough or a sneeze or even a deep breath. We knew we were hearing something the like of which we would never hear again, and we were suitably enchanted. (It didn’t hurt that DiDonato was wearing a girlishly punk hairstyle and a Maleficent-style dress, so that she seemed both over-the-top and completely unpretentious. But whatever she was wearing, we would have been her rapt slaves.)

Great as she was, though, she couldn’t have done it alone. The opera worked because every one of her supporting cast members brought her or his full self to the role. Alice Coote was a terrific Ruggiero (as she had been in my original San Francisco experience), Christine Rice a charming Bradamante/Ricciardo, Anna Christy and Ben Johnson a hilariously moving Morgana and Oronte, Wojtek Gierlach a great, deepvoiced Melisso, and Anna Devin an enchantingly ingenuous Oberto.  The band played beautifully, too, especially the duo of horns, the solo cello, and the solo violin.

Yet even all these stellar contributions, taken separately, could not have added up to what I saw on Sunday, had there not been some special chemistry involved. Call it DiDonato+Bicket+ Carnegie+Handel. Call it whatever you like: the hallucinatory drug, perhaps, that is Handel at his best. The young woman who had the seat next to me, a jazz pianist who knew nothing about opera, commented on how involving she found it. Was this what opera was like?  ”Hardly ever,” I told her. “This is as good as it gets.”

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Simon’s Band

I first came to love music, I mean really love music, by listening to the Berlin Philharmonic during  a semester spent in Berlin. I was an avid fan that whole fall, not only attending every concert I could get tickets for, but also squeezing my way into occasional rehearsals. I got to love the building itself—not the scaly gold exterior, but that warm, intimate, beautifully shaped, acoustically perfect auditorium. I got to love the musicians, who together formed a miraculously unified yet personally distinctive ensemble. And I especially got to love the way Simon Rattle connected with both his players and his audiences, making us feel we were all part of the same exciting endeavor.

So whenever I am in the same town as the Berlin Phil, I go again, and each time I have that same sense of discovery. Over the last ten days I got to hear them four times in New York—three times at Carnegie Hall, once at the Park Avenue Armory—with results that ranged from intense satisfaction to delirious delight.

The first Carnegie concert (a longer version of the gala for which the high-flyers had paid a fortune the night before) took place on Thursday the 2nd and featured Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances and Stravinsky’s Firebird. Some people felt that the former was a bit of flash performed brilliantly while the latter was the meaty substance; others felt the reverse. (I was in the former category, a friend I spoke to at intermission in the latter). But Simon and his band clearly felt that both pieces equally deserved their serious attention, and their conviction made the entire experience compelling. The program made me realize, for one thing, how late Romanticism could blend almost seamlessly into early Modernism; it also brought home the fact that both these Russian works were essentially about dance. At the end, Rattle returned to his podium during the fourth standing ovation, quieted the audience with his hands, and asked in a friendly tone, “Do you want us to play something else?” The roaring crowd yelled, “Yes!” and was duly treated a lovely instrumental interlude from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut.

The next two concerts, on Sunday the 5th and Monday the 6th, were mildly less exciting, mainly because they consisted almost entirely of Schumann symphonies. The Berlin Phil is capable of making me love almost any composer (I became a Brahms convert after they did all four Brahms symphonies here a couple of years ago), but Schumann may pose too high a barrier—though Berlin friends who heard Rattle leading mixed Brahms-Schumann concerts there in late September told me it was a revelation. Our New York concerts could perhaps have used some Brahms to fatten them up.

The Monday concert benefited from having an interlude of Georg Friedrich Haas between Schumann’s 4th (which Rattle played in its earlier, lighter edition) and Schumann’s 3rd, which ended the program with a bang. The Haas, dark dreams, was a new piece written in 2013, and its twenty-three-minute duration could have been either five minutes or an hour: once you got into its musical zone, which involved hair-raising string-and-horn creepiness mingled with ominous drum rolls, solemn gongs, and even occasional solo melodies, you lost the sense of where you were in time and just drifted. I was grateful for its novelties and thrilled by its depths, but the grumpy old guys sitting around me (at least one of whom had slept through the initial Schumann) were clearly upset by the unexpectedness of having to listen to something new. When a small portion of the audience began booing at the end—an almost unheard-of event at Carnegie—one of my seatmates muttered his agreement with the naysayers, adding: “I hate that kind of muck!” Such attitudes made the rest of us feel a bit as if we were attending the original Rite of Spring.

The high point of the Berlin Phil’s visit, though, was their performance of the Saint Matthew Passion at the Park Avenue Armory, where they had recreated the seating structure of the Philharmonie auditorium so as to stage Peter Sellars’s production in the round. I had seen this Saint Matthew before, in Berlin, and while I did not buy tickets to either of the two New York performances (prices for this White Light Festival event started at around $275 and eventually reached a scalped $800), I managed to get my class of writing students into the all-day Saturday rehearsal, courtesy of Sellars himself. He generously seated us about ten feet from the stage, right in front of all the action, and my students and I were in heaven. We got to see 45 minutes or so of actual rehearsing, with Simon Rattle speaking quietly to the singers and players (sometimes in German, sometimes in English), getting them to redo certain bits and focusing on subtle acoustical questions while the chorus stampeded around the hall to its designated marks. And then, even more importantly, we were treated to a full run-through of the whole show, with a lunch break in the middle.

I had been moved by the performance in Berlin, but I was even more moved here, where I could read every line in English supertitles as it was being sung. And it was remarkable to sit so close to Mark Padmore as he rendered his intensely physical, searingly emotional Evangelist, the transmitter through whom this whole account of Christ’s betrayal and crucifixion comes to life—comes to life even, perhaps especially, for us agnostics in the audience. I had told my students beforehand that if they were sure they were not going to write their papers on the Saint Matthew they could go home at the break if they got too tired, but almost all of them stayed for the whole 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. experience. And when I left at the end of the afternoon, I felt that my class and I had witnessed something irreplaceably wonderful. It seemed even better than a real performance would have been, because we got both the intensity of the full concert—granted to us at very close range—and the intimacy of being part of its making.

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Tetzlaff’s Triumph

David Hume says somewhere in his philosophical works that you can’t be proud of the Pacific Ocean—the idea being that you need to have some sense of relationship or ownership to warrant pride, and no one can own the Pacific Ocean. I, as a native Californian, have nonetheless insisted on retaining a certain unearned feeling of pride about the Pacific Ocean, and now I find I have the same sense about a few beloved performers whose concerts I’ve been following for years. Christian Tetzlaff’s achievements have nothing at all to do with me: I had no part in giving rise to them, and they would be exactly the same if I did not exist. Yet when I hear Tetzlaff play all six Bach sonatas and partitas for solo violin in one evening, the emotion that wells up in me feels very much like pride.

Perhaps I am just proud of the human race for producing a violinist who can bring so much to these remarkable pieces and, at the same time, render them exactly in Bach’s spirit.  Or perhaps I am just pleased with myself for having managed to hear Tetzlaff accomplish this miracle twice, both times in the same place, in the main auditorium of the 92nd Street Y. The first time I heard him do it, about five years ago, I had no idea what was about to take place, so I was stunned both by the performance itself and by my own feelings of transcendence in the face of it. This time I knew better what to expect, but the transcendence still hadn’t gone away. The astonishing thing about Tetzlaff’s achievement, as a physical feat, is that he is able to sustain this unimaginably difficult performance for so long; and yet what happens to you, as you listen, is that time seems to disappear, so that the whole 136 minutes of playing becomes like one “spot of time,” as Wordsworth might have put it.

In last Thursday’s concert, just as in the one I heard in 2009, Tetzlaff played all six pieces in order, by heart: Sonata 1, Partita 1, Sonata 2 (then an extended intermission placed exactly in the middle, so that he could eat cookies to restore his strength and we could rush out for a quick meal), Partita 2, Sonata 3, Partita 3 . And as before, but perhaps in an even subtler way, the six pieces became a single work telling a continuous story. It was a story without a plot and without characters, but it had a great deal of narrative color and enormous shifts of mood, from quiet moments of contemplation, when you almost couldn’t hear the notes (but you always could, every single one), to fast, intense passages that made his fingers fly so quickly you could barely see them. For the first five works, Tetzlaff was relatively solemn, for him. He curled over his instrument, stayed rather still, and often closed his eyes or lowered them to his fingering. (For tunings between movements, he even turned away from us, toward the back of the stage, as if to signal: please ignore, this is private, I am not really here onstage during this part.) But when he got to the sixth piece, the final partita, he relaxed back into his usual lightly dancing, joyous, comfortable self, as if to say: Yes, I’ve done it, here we are at the end, and wasn’t it wonderful? And it was.

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Glass and Reich

Perhaps the most interesting thing about hearing the music of Philip Glass and Steve Reich together—as last week’s three concerts at the Brooklyn Academy of Music allowed New Yorkers to do—is the discovery of how very different they are. It’s habitual to lump them together as Minimalists, as if that somehow defines them. But in fact they are as different from each other as any two artists who happen to share the same time, place, and (to a certain extent) materials.

Reich, whose music appeared first on the sole program I was able to attend, is a strict, subtle perfectionist. His music depends heavily on exactitude: the exact phasing in and out of rhythm on the part of different players, the exact descents and ascents of scales, the placement of a single melodic note or drumbeat at just the right place. He is the Bach, let us say, of this pair, and if his art contains emotion (which it does, in quantities), he achieves that through a submission to form. Last Thursday’s concert featured the always delightful Clapping Music (here performed by Reich himself and Russell Hartenberger); the sometimes tedious WTC 9/11 (though, admittedly, I hate all music that has a recorded speaking voice in it); the terrific Piano Phase/Video Phase, in which Reich’s original score for two pianos was performed by percussionist David Cossin, playing both live and in video; and the tremendous Sextet, which—in addition to his Music for 18 Musicians, which I missed on Tuesday night—is one of my favorite Reich pieces of all time.

Having had that satisfying first act, I couldn’t figure out how I would adapt to the very different mood required by Glass in the second half. But I needn’t have worried. Glass specializes in mood; he does it all for you. And if you think you are going to be able to stand apart and analyze his work and wonder what good it’s doing you—well, think again. The minute the strong undertones and sweeping orchestral effects come in, augmented by the high sound of a soprano voice, you are done for. It is all emotion washing over you. Glass is the Beethoven to Reich’s Bach (or, as a friend of mine said, he is a great global-music rock composer—which may just be a different way of putting the same thing).

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Up Close

I have always loved the Pacifica Quartet, but I have never before listened to them play from five feet away. Last night, sitting in the front row of the Cosentino Winery’s barrel room, I was practically as close to the violist, Masumi Per Rostad, as he was to Brandon Vamos, the cellist who sits next to him; I was nearer to him than he was to either of the violinists, Simin Ganatra and Sibbi Bernhardsson. And this meant that the music—Beethoven’s “Harp” quartet and Shostakovich’s Ninth Quartet (a great pairing of pizzicato-heavy, mutually reinforcing works)—came to life in a way I had never quite experienced, even with this terrific group. I was surrounded by the sound, and as the repeated themes of both pieces ran back and forth across the players, I could actually sense the patterns moving from side to side in space, and not just forward in time.

In this I was lucky, because the Cosentino Winery—a relatively new performance space in the excellent Music in the Vineyards series—did not yet offer the ideal acoustics for an intense concert like this. Those in the back rows, I imagine, were probably troubled by loud laughter drifting in from the tasting room, spurts of water-and-air noise from the cooling systems, and the occasional tinkle of glasses being restored  to their shelves. All this can be fixed, I presume, as the winery settles into its concert function.  And in any case none of these problems got to me, because I was enveloped in the music: I could hear every dramatically quiet note, every sudden transition from solo voice to vigorous unity, every quiver of vibrato or pluck of pizzicato.

As I listened to the Beethoven quartet played with such intense feeling and understanding (not to mention masterful dynamic control and tonal skill), I decided the performance couldn’t be topped.  And then, on the Shostakovich, I changed my mind, because that turned out to be the pinnacle of the evening. I have heard this piece dozens if not hundreds of times, several times played live by the Pacificas themselves, but it has never before spoken to me in so many ways: of Shostakovich’s wit, of his sorrow, of his patient endurance in times of distress, of his affection for all kinds of tonal and dissonant music (including klezmer and jazz), and, especially, of his anxiety, a permeating note throughout this and practically every other chamber piece of his. In the Pacifica Quartet’s performance, all these disparate things came together as if they were woven from a single thread—a thread that went back and forth among the players and looped around me as well, holding me spellbound in its startling, moving embrace.

The Pacificas are regulars at Music in the Vineyards, and many of the audience members in the packed room seem to know them personally, or at least know a lot about them. This, too, added to the intimacy of the occasion and gave it a warmth that is rarely found in larger concert settings. It was a funny feeling, the sense that I was in the midst of a Pacifica-loving crowd and at the same time alone with the musicians, smack in the center of the music. And it was a good feeling, in both respects.

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Perfect Programming

One of the reasons to attend summer musical festivals is that the work of deciding what’s likely to be worth hearing has already been intelligently done for you. In the case of Music@Menlo this is especially true, since the deciders (artistic directors Wu Han and David Finckel, assisted by Edward Sweeney and the rest of their talented staff) always find wonderful new things to combine with favorite old ones. I don’t have the stamina to festivize all day long, so I tend to choose just a few of the offerings, sometimes on the basis of performers and other times for the music, and then my husband and I drive down to Menlo Park for one concert at a time.

This year we went twice: first to hear the Danish String Quartet play a mainly Beethoven program on Saturday, July 26, and then last night to the final concert of the season, a mixed program of Czech and Hungarian composers (this year’s “theme” was Dvorak) played by a mixed group  of performers. The Danes, who were introduced to us Bay Areans by Music@Menlo last year, are a remarkable group, and I will always make an effort to hear them play. Last year they debuted with Haydn and Mozart, at whom they excelled. There was one Haydn quartet on this year’s program, and that was predictably great. I felt their Beethoven fell a little short of that level, not for any technical reasons (these guys are perfect players), but because—if I don’t sound too ridiculous saying this—they don’t really understand Beethoven yet. It’s not just a matter of age or nationality. I’m not sure what it is, though the absent element may have something to do with passion, with angst, with negative capability. They are playing the music perfectly well, but it doesn’t seem to alter them: they play Beethoven’s quartets as they would anything else, and that is the problem.  Still, I have to allow for the fact that it could have been I and not the players who were off that night.

Last night’s concert, though, made me remember why I go to concerts. Looking at the program, I realized I had chosen it because it included Dvorak’s Piano Quintet with Anne-Marie McDermott at the piano. Every time I have heard this gifted player, I have been delighted and amazed:  it’s not just that she is extraordinarily talented herself, but that she is one of the great musical collaborators of all time, and this makes it a constant pleasure to hear her in chamber pieces. I first heard her performing in Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet as part of a Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center event, and it was a life-changing experience.  This time she started and ended the program (beginning with Smetana, ending with Dvorak) and left space for two all-string pieces in between, one by Dohnanyi and one by Schulhoff.

The Smetana “Bohemian Fantasy” was a light, amusing piece, played with charm and virtuosity by McDermott and a young Russian violinist, Alexander Sitkovetsky. I was happy enough to hear it but forgot it the second it was over. Then came Erno Dohnanyi’s “Serenade for String Trio,” a piece I had never heard before, featuring Sitkovetsky on the violin, Paul Neubauer on the viola, and Narek Hakhnazaryan on the cello. Composed in 1902, it was a fascinating and compelling mixture of modernism and something else—folk music? romanticism? classicism?—that in its inventive combinations anticipated Bartok and everyone else who followed.  I was delighted to be introduced to it, and already feeling grateful to Han and Finckel, when the third piece on the program simply knocked me out.  Erwin Schulhoff’s String Sextet (performed here by violinists Nicolas Dautricort and Benjamin Beilman, violists Yura Lee and Paul Neubauer, and cellists Dmitri Atapine and Narek Hakhnazaryan) is one of the most terrifying, moving pieces of music I’ve ever encountered. Filled with silences and near-silences, combining quietly frenzied drones and brief searing melodies, calling forth eloquent solos (especially on the viola), and, toward the end, an eerie slide on the cello that literally raised the hair on the back of my neck, it speaks of the twentieth century and all its horrors. I checked my program for the dates of composition—1920 to 1924—and realized that this young Czech-Jewish composer (he was born in 1894 and died in 1942, a victim of the Nazis) had anticipated Shostakovich by about forty or fifty years.

The Schulhoff piece was so intense that the audience remained silent for a full ten seconds at the end, and I had no idea how we were going to get from there to the rollicking Dvorak, even with an intermission in between. But I should have trusted McDermott and her companions. When the Piano Quintet began, I could immediately sense its kindly, restorative qualities, especially in these highly capable hands. I own the recording of Menahem Pressler’s version of this piece, and I love it, but I think last night’s performance was even better. The Schulhoff had towed us far out to sea and left us nearly drowned; the Dvorak brought us in and restored us to life. I was grateful, and satisfied, and pleased beyond words to be there.

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