Music@Menlo's third season, which began last week, has a portentous
title - "Beethoven: Center of Gravity." There was Beethoven aplenty in
the first program of the festival, but gravity was notably absent as some
of chamber music's greatest danced through both lighthearted fare and
music made buoyant.
Festival directors Wu Han and David Finckel put together a complex and
ambitious program (www.musicatmenlo.org), with a main concert series at
its core, plus a rich array of preludes, lectures, workshops, etc. The
festival is divided into three developmental sections, each including
three programs, performed several times in Palo Alto's St. Mark's Church
and Atherton's Menlo School. The sections, referring to Beethoven's
career, although including music by many others - I. "The Early Years:
Arrival in Vienna, 1790-1800," II. "The Heroic Period: Crisis and
Triumph, 1800-1810," and III. "Into Eternity: Music Transfigured,
The first concert, heard Friday night, at its second performance, took
the "Early Years" designation seriously enough to go back to Haydn (the
Piano Trio in E Major, from 1795) and Mozart (Horn Quintet, 1782), leading
into the Beethoven Septet, completed in 1800. The concert's Prelude
included two Beethoven piano sonatas, the 1798 "Pathetique" and the 1801
As all (free) Prelude events, this too featured young artists, who are
participating in the festival's workshos and intensive coaching by the
artists featured in evening concerts. Before Teresa Yu played the Sonata
No. 8, she told the audience that she had gained experience playing
Beethoven "at weddings and receptions," misting eyes up easily with the
Adagio cantabile of the "Pathetique."
And so Yu launched into a rather heavy-handed opening passage, but she
soon regained control, and dazzled with smooth, fluent runs, and excellent
balance. If some of her "paragraphs" trailed off now and then, Yu's
"sentences" were well rounded and complete. The second movement went
far beyond wedding standards, Yu playing pianissimo passages beautifully,
showing both understanding of and security in the music. A strong and
clear Rondo kept her in the plus column at the conclusion of the sonata.
(Born in Taiwan, Yu is studying at the SF Conservatory of Music, with
According to his biography, 18-year-old Adam Golka is all over the map,
featured as a pianist from Warsaw to Shanghai (where he had just won a
gold medal in competition), but on Thursday night, when he started playing
the "Moonlight" sonata, he was totally present here and now, in St.
Mark's, with a perfectly fluid, un-accented opening of the Adagio that
just warmed the listener's heart.
Musical "neutrality" became a bit excessive midway through the movement,
as the notes continued to flow by the book, but not the music, not quite.
Still, in the Allegretto, Golka once again made a strong impression,
with clarity and an even diction, sagely staying clear of the usual
"bumping along" some pianists - even very good ones - fall into there,
willy-nilly. Golka is clearly a prodigious prodigy, possibly on the way
of becoming a first-class musician.
The main concert, in the evening, featured nothing but those first-class
artists, big names and great performances happily coinciding. Joseph
Silverstein's violin led the the Mozart Quintet and the Beethoven Septet,
gloriously supported by Geraldine Walther's viola and Ronald Thomas'
cello, among others, but the amazing hero of both pieces was William
VerMeulen, who plays the French horn as if it were just a musical
The Devil's instrument, as it is, the horn is said to be played well if
most of the notes come out right; for VerMeulen, all notes did, without
audible effort, with winning elegance. He blended the sound exquisitely
with the strings, with Anthony McGill's virtuoso clarinet, Dennis Godburn's
noble bassoon. Throughout the Septet, there were moments of lighthearted
("gravity-free") playing that was both meltingly beautiful and totally
Derek Han's piano, with some daringly slow (but "right") releases, paced
Ian Swensen's violin and Finckel's cello in the Haydn Piano Trio, three
mature musicians playing the work by a rather elderly composer (in 18th
century terms) with youthful verve and contagious energy. Gravity? More
like levity, in a good sense.
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