Variety is truly the spice of the Music@Menlo Festival - last year's
inaugural season boldly attempted to span the entire history of classical
music - so Monday's single-composer concert in Palo Alto was a departure
from the norm. Fortunately, festival directors David Finckel and Wu Han
had the good judgment to pick Franz Schubert as that solitary source of
music, thus providing a range as big as all the sky even within the
Vienna: Schubertiade had a rich, thoughtful program planned: a generous
selection of lieder, to be performed by baritone Nathaniel Webster, piano
works for four hands, the 1819 "Trout" Piano Quintet, and the sublime
Piano Trio in E-flat Major from 1827... and then Life interfered. As
Wu Han told the audience before the concert in jam-packed St. Mark's
Episcopal Church, the singer canceled Sunday afternoon, a call went to
Boston to Christopheren Nomura, he then flew to California the day of
the concert (rehearsing, presumably, in the air), and substituted a
mostly different list of songs.
With all that excitement, on top of the routine demands of running
a festival and preparing for a concert, Wu Han joined Derek Han for
a four-hand performance of the Polonaise in d-minor, and the adrenalin
overflow turned the naturally "loud" music into a virtual "1812 Overture,"
complete with cannons. Two brief Landlers later, the two exceptional
pianists "settled down," and provided a muscular, heroic, brilliant
Military March in D Major without a hint of the volume excess that opened
the concert. Han and Han then went on as the mainstays of the concert,
he as the accompanist in the lieder and the center of the Trio; she as
the "voice" leading the Quintet.
There is no better demonstration of the variety in Schubert's music
than the Trio, which became the unforgettable high point of the concert.
Flowing with melody and a dazzling array of ideas, this work demands
not only flawless execution, but a depth of feeling expressed without
gushing... and that's what it got. How fortunate that Music at Menlo
records and publishes all performances: don't miss this CD when it becomes
available. Derek Han's shimmeringly fluent piano joined Philip Setzer's
solid, straightforward violin and David Finckel's grounded-yet-singing
cello for what seemed to be one long aria of rapture. The intimate
conversation among the three instruments turned increasingly joyous, and
by the concluding Allegro, the amazing, total silence of the audience
became a vibrant aural background to the soaring music.
Wu Han, Setzer and Finckel were joined by violist Hsin-Yun Huang and
bassist Charles Chandler for a fine, substantive performance of the
Quintet, with a perplexing intrusion of some strange overtones at times,
coming either from an untuned string or some electronic feedback.
Nomura sang the first five songs of Die Schone Mullerin cycle, Erlkonig,
An die Musik, and Die Forelle (leading into the performance of the
Quintet). Personable, earnest, dedicated, the singer put his all
into the music, but to these ears, coming up short. What he lacks is
"micro-legato" (admittedly a made-up term), that is, connecting notes
rather than phrases "real legato" provides. His is a fine voice - perhaps
without much power or warmth - but individual notes appear just that,
not flowing, blending naturally. Judging by the audience response to
his performance, this may well be a minority report.
Education, master classes, performance opportunities for young
musicians are essential components of Music at Menlo, and the free
Prelude Performances at 6 p.m. in St. Mark's are a treasure. On Monday,
the pre-Schubertiade event featured 20-something performers from the
festival's International Program Workshop, including instrumentalists
from Austria (the spectacular violinist Korbinian Altenberger), Germany
(cellist Olivia Jeremias), Singapore (violin virtuoso Tee Khoon Tang),
Norway (violinist Ida Bryhn), the UK (pianist Philip Fisher), Japan
(violinist Miho Saegua, born there, but a long-time US resident), Sweden
(violinist Sara Troback, cellist Claes Gunnarsson), and even Tennessee
(violist David Kim).
With the Schubert "Rosamunde" Quartet connecting the afternoon to the
evening (Saegusa, Tang, Kim and Jeremias), the Prelude also provided
Haydn's Piano Trio in A Major (Troback, Gunnarsson, and Fisher), and
Mozart's Piano Quartet in g minor (Altenberger, Bryhn, Gunnarsson and
Fisher). Again, the afternoon concerts are free, and they provide a
splendid glimpse into a future that's sure to bring performances such
as that of the evening's Schubert Trio.
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