Tough And Tender Russians Open Music@Menlo

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The fourteenth season of Music@Menlo opened with a Russian theme at the Center for Performing Arts at Menlo-Atherton. (Photo by Scott Chernis/Music@Menlo)
By Gary Lemco

ATHERTON, Calif. – After the sounding of the final, jarring chords of Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps — in its 1913 version for piano four hands as performed by Wu Han and Gloria Chien – a full house at the Center for Performing Arts at Menlo-Atherton erupted into unbridled applause, acknowledging the opening of the fourteenth season of Music@Menlo and its current theme, “Russian Reflections.” Four classic Russian composers enchanted and dazzled us with their polychromatic and melodic gifts: Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Scriabin, and Stravinsky, with the last two already pointing toward a musical future that still evolves from their spirit. 

Wu Han, left, and Gloria Chien played  ‘Le sacre du printemps.’ (Carlin Ma)

The ambitious program on July 16 began with Rachmaninoff’s Suite No. 2 in C minor for 2 Pianos, Op. 17 (1901), performed by Lucille Chung and Chien, seated parallel to each other, the women garbed in contrasting black and red attire. Unusual for this ordinarily solemn, nostalgic composer, much of the Suite glitters: the aggressive and symphonic Alla Marcia – likely meant to scatter the Philistines – rang with the two keyboards’ freely mixing and wheeling into each other’s space, in close imitation. The extended, exotic Valse (Presto) movement made a dazzling tour de force, alternately a toccata and a lovely arioso. The Romance exuded a tender melancholy that briefly, in the manner of Schubert, burst into a moment of passion. We might, if listening closely, hear adumbrations of the later E Minor Symphony. Last, the spiteful Tarantella, a presto with volcanic ambitions, burst forth and offered both pianists in a synchronized display that led to the first of the evening’s standing ovations.

PYOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY ( 1840–1893 ) Serenade in C Major for Strings, op. 48 (1880)
Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings: ‘an arresting performance.’ (Carlin Ma)

The stage was then occupied by thirteen string players assembled for a richly persuasive treatment of Tchaikovsky’s 1880 Serenade for Strings in C, Op. 48. Curiously, Mozart provides the model for Tchaikovsky’s passionate, lyric music, even though the latter’s style conceals the influence. The first violins, led by Nicolas Dautricourt, and the second violins, led by Ryan Meehan, found exquisite complement in the lower strings, with viola master Paul Neubauer at the helm and wonderful cello support from Estelle Choi and Coleman Itzkoff.  Add to this Scott Pingel’s bass as the anchor, and we had all the ingredients of a seamless, Romantic realization of this music, which the composer characterized as “heartfelt . . . and not lacking in real qualities.”

Besides the spectacular sonority and melodic inflection these players achieved, the homogeneity of tone consistently beguiled us in music we thought we already knew to the point of complacency. The familiar Valse assumed a youthful, lithe serenity, while Tchaikovsky’s many passages of layered harmony received a clarity that a chamber ensemble bestows by nature. The scale passage of the waltz informs the succeeding Elegie, here intoned with nuance and introspection. The Finale, a blend of two folk tunes and the introduction to the first movement, resounded with the higher and lower string choirs singing in sweet antiphons, an arresting performance.

(Lisa Marie Mazzucco)
Pianist Lucille Chung played Scriabin. (Lisa Marie Mazzucco)

The second half of the program opened with that mystical Russian, Alexander Scriabin – three piano pieces as performed by Chung. Scriabin in his early piano preludes distilled much from Chopin, tinted by his own eroticism and idiosyncratic harmony. Chung began with the Prelude in B, Op. 16, No. 1 (1895), marked Andante and revealing a tender, cantabile sensibility infiltrated by restless cross-rhythms. The ensuing Andante in B-flat, Op. 11, No. 21 (1896) might owe debts to Chopin’s own late Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op. 45. The gentle, poetic side of Scriabin soon found its foil in Chung’s stunning Vers la flamme, Op. 72 (1914), in which Scriabin’s forward syntax and Promethean metaphor have become saturated by his fascination with light – on a par with the artist J.M.W. Turner – but enraged in its bass patterns, five-against-three, so that the progression achieves a density as voracious as it is incandescent: Joseph Conrad’s Mr. Kurtz in his attempt to swallow the Apocalypse.

If we must heed Dylan Thomas’ call to “rage against the dying of the light,” Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps will serve epically, even a hundred years after the first hearing of its musical irreverence. Hearing the version for piano four hands (played here on two pianos), listeners could well appreciate the outrage provoked by its perceived assault on traditional music, instigating a riot in Paris and made immortal by Stravinsky’s remark that, when he embraced conductor Pierre Monteux, “it was the sweatiest kiss of my life.” With  Han – dressed, by the way, in white and red garb resembling a firebird – and Chien at two keyboards, we witnessed, even without the specific colors that the orchestral version bestows, the intensely deliberate breakage of rhythmic, metric, and cadence patterns, so that a primal energy explodes in a vision of earth’s abundance, fertility, and unceasing demand for sacrifice. So much of the score resounds with keyboard sonority and violence that the “reduction” became invisible. The ballet’s convulsions, jabs, eruptions, even its few moments of relative serenity, yield to obsession, a revaluation of music itself. This whirlwind performance had our minds reeling and our imaginations either soaring into ecstasies or descending into Gorky’s lower depths. And we might recall that the premiere of Le sacre tickled the nose of one Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel.

The Music@Menlo Music Festival and Institute – organized and maintained by founders and artistic directors Wu Han and David Finckel – includes concerts, lectures, master classes, and young people’s concerts, and continues through August 6. For tickets and information, click here.

Gary Lemco hosts The Music Treasury on KZSU-FM, Stanford, streamed at Sundays 7-9 p.m. (PST).