Menlo Programs Trace Far-Ranging Influence of Bach

Music at Menlo the California chamber music festival holds concerts at the Menlo Atherton Performing Arts Center
The California chamber music festival Music@Menlo holds concerts at Menlo-Atherton Center for the Performing Arts.
By Gary Lemco

Music@Menlo‘s eleventh season, now underway through Aug. 10,  is designed to celebrate Bach’s influence on the trajectory of musical history. Founded by Wu Han and David Finckel, the California Bay Area chamber music festival opened July 19 with an impressive concert featuring a range of Bach-influenced works from Schubert to Bartók.

The season’s context-setting approach includes five Carte Blanche Concerts  (a series of artist-curated recitals), and four Encounters discussions that provide philosophical grounding in multimedia symposia led by classical music authorities on topics such as the evolution of the keyboard from the Baroque to the modern piano and a consideration of Bach’s liturgical music. But the concerts themselves are also structured according to the guiding rubric “Through Bach.”

Pianists Derek Han and Gloria Chien perform Bach's Concerto in C Major, S.1061, backs to audience. (Tristan Cook)
Derek Han and Gloria Chien perform Bach, backs to audience. (Tristan Cook)

The inaugural program opened with Bach’s Concerto in C Major for 2 Pianos, S.1061 (1734), played by Derek Han and Gloria Chien. The two keyboards had the pianists’ backs to the audience, old-style; I had to remind myself that it was Liszt who decided a profile was worth a thousand words.

A hearty dialogue ensued from the outset, the two pianists in constant concertante flurry while the string complement supported and enriched the textures. Spirited, singing lines and seamless transitions between the two leading voices marked this exemplary, crystalline rendition. The Adagio (or rather Largo) had Han and Chien intimately conversing sans accompaniment. The Vivace: Fuga finale proffered a sparkling combination of harmony and invention, the polyphonic lines as transparent as they were ductile.

Han then returned with Hyeyeon Park to perform Schubert’s 1828 Rondo in A Major, D.951 at one piano. This so-called “Grand Rondeau” derives from Schubert’s last months of life, yet the emotional cast of the work remains sunny, opening with an Allegretto quasi Andantino whose theme clearly resembles aspects of his lovely, earlier (1819) Sonata in A Major, D.664. The emotional breadth of the piece belies its epithet “rondo,” in that Schubert interrupts the usual palindrome structure of ABA-C-ABA with any number of asides or episodes, some invoking the poise of a rustic chorale. Each of Schubert’s melodies dovetails with another, so the flow of invention appears grounded in some vast stream of beauty. The refrain itself renews and transforms in its various appearances, whether Ländler, march, waltz, or German dance; and so what would otherwise remain a salon piece of some Beidermeier pragmatism suddenly transforms the entire four-hand genre into a canvas of supreme majesty.

Robert Schumann’s Andante and Variations for Two Pianos, Two Cellos, and Horn, Op. 46 (1843) featured Han and Chien; with cellists Laurence Lesser and David Finckel, cellos; and Kevin Rivard, horn. Rivard plays a fine horn, his tone and vocal articulation reminiscent of the late John Barrows. Schumann’s work opens with a slow introduction, the mordantly chromatic theme – to be the subject of 12 variations – drooping like the late, haunted Concert Piece for Piano and Orchestra in D Minor. The sixth variation of Op. 46 exploits Schumann’s tendency to self-promotion, quoting from his own Frauenliebe und -leben song cycle, Op. 42, obviously a sighing paean to wife Clara. Prior to the song citation, Schumann creates an effective, funereal dirge, much like that in his famous Piano Quintet. While the cellos sang artfully in variation 5, the horn sounded a hunting call in variation 9 that surely impressed Brahms for his own excursion into this sound-world in his Horn Trio.

Wu Han, pianist, Christopher Froh, percussionist, Gilbert Kalish, pianist, Ian Rosenbaum, percussionist Music@Menlo (Tristan Cook)
Wu Han, Christopher Froh, Gilbert Kalish, Ian Rosenbaum (Tristan Cook)

Darkly intimate and piquantly colorful, the Schumann dictated a thoughtful melancholy, anticipating the singular work that would end the program — Bartók’s monumental Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (1937). Percussionist Christopher Froh calls the Bartók “one of the two pillars of the percussion repertory,” the other being George Crumb’s Music for a Summer Evening (Makrokosmos), which pays Bartók homage. (Froh was joined by percussionist Ian Rosenbaum and pianists Wu Han and Gilbert Kalish in this performance.)

Given the polyphonic aesthetic of sound, mass, color and rhythm, it remains hard to believe the first movement Assai lento – Allegro molto is in C Major. The piece presents rather a sound “phenomenon” akin to the shocks that mark Le Sacre du Printemps, a synthesis of Debussy, Stravinsky, the exotic gamelan orchestra, and Bartók’s endemic Hungarian, modal nationalism. The second movement, Lento ma non troppo, ostensibly in F Major, opts for Bartók’s “night music” strategy, the ternary song-form.

The last movement, parallel to the sonata-form first movement, resumes in C Major. But the iconoclastic presentation of traditional forms comes with such urgency and imaginative bravura that we still sit aghast at the sheer audacity that makes such demands upon performer and listener. When the last pianissimo tones subsided, the rapt audience exploded in appreciation, not only for the uncanny stamina and co-ordination among the principals, but for the re-awakening of their collective consciousness from a piece of music that refuses to cater to our musical complacency.

Interested patrons of Music@Menlo may visit their website or call 650-331-0202 to secure tickets for the remainder of the Festival and Institute.

Gary Lemco, B.A. and M. A., SUNY Binghamton, NY; M.A. and PH.D., Georgia State University. Music studies with Carmine Arena, Philip Friedheim, Emanuel Winternitz, and Jean Casadesus. Host of The Music Treasury, WHRW-FM 1966-68 and 1970-75; guest critic on WQXR’s nationally distributed First Hearing, 1984-1999; writer, Musical America and Classical DisCDigest; contributor to Audiophile Audition and Member, Music Critics Association of North America. Author: Nietzsche as Educator; articles on Hemingway, Hawthorne, Bellow, Shelley, Fitzgerald, H. James, Orwell, D. H. Lawrence, Ellison. Specialist in reviewing reissues of great performers of the past. Hosts The Music Treasury on KZSU-FM, Stanford, streamed at Thursdays 8-10 p.m. (PST).