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July 29, 2004
"A 73-year-old Briton who fears that his family name will die with him took to the airwaves to appeal for anyone else with the same moniker to get in touch. Mike Pimbury told the BBC…that genealogical research in Canada, New Zealand, and Australia had failed to turn up a single living Pimbury."
—New York Times July 28, 2004
In 2004 a classical-music lover could be forgiven for asking the same kind of melancholy question that drove Mr. Pimbury to the BBC microphones. Am I alone? The press over the past year has been tolling news of classical music’s demise; one orchestra struggling under red-ink blood-loss while another goes belly up altogether. I’ve read these reports and rubbed my forehead and wondered if I am the last person in the world who loves classical music, the last person who needs it like—well, not exactly like water and oxygen, but like good food.
News like this has been pretty consistent over the past few years, and in July 2003 I remember coming to Music@Menlo feeling a case of the classical blues. But Menlo, in its very first season, answered it with:
- Sold-out chamber music concerts every night
- Otherwise upright Silicon Valley citizens trying to sneak into venues like nine-year-old boys try to sneak into baseball games
- The sight of patrons who couldn’t buy or beg their way in, opting to sit on concrete steps underneath the concert hall’s open windows.
Menlo 2003 did a soul good. Menlo 2004 gets underway today and I hope for the same—the news has been that harsh over the past 12 months. I expect to meet throngs of music-hungry people who live near, or make the pilgrimage to, this sun-washed festival to be surprised that they aren’t alone after all. That the world is full of Pimbury's.
July 31, 2004
My wife and girls and I arrived in California a few days before Music@Menlo so we could see a favorite uncle and take in a bit of the tourist-brochure weather the Bay Area serves up in summer. For three days now between glimpses of the Golden Gate and glittering Pacific I’ve been hearing from the backseat of the rental car the hiss of Walt Disney movie soundtracks. The girls have their CD players on and headphones clamped to their ears. Even though I can barely hear that tinny backbeat, it means their headphones are way too loud and because they are 5 and 7 I’m worrying about hearing loss—while I bask in a brief break from “Are we almost there?”
So picture me driving the winding Bay roads worrying about little girls’ ears, but also stewing on what’s going into their ears. Disney music on the CD players, Disney channel (which they adore) on cable in the hotel room, Radio Disney pre-set in the car which plays tunes from his movies… The Disney purchase cycle has no beginning or end. And if all this wasn’t quite enough Disney, right over there behind a sprawling vineyard north of the Bay lies Disney’s own summer house, his hideaway when life in Los Angeles got too much. We are all-Walt all the time.
Which made the very first moment, the first bar of the first Music@Menlo concert such a relief, almost a shock. Here were young performers the same age as those beguiling my little girls, musicians in their early twenties without a megawatt sound system or wind machine but with violins and violas and cellos cradled in their arms. They took one long breath together, raised their bows—and out came a beautiful single chord of Boccherini. No backbeat, no glitz, just the sound of humans making one gorgeous chord together.
Menlo is underway. Stow the headphones, girls. You gotta come hear this…
August 1, 2004
People who come to Music@Menlo concerts often think that this is what the festival is solely about, famous artists making glorious chamber music before an appreciative and paying audience. But the concerts in the amiable California evening are essentially Menlo’s storefront. In the daylight hours before then, the festival is all about education.
Last season some two dozen students came here from Bay Area junior and senior highs and big-name east coast music schools like Curtis and Juilliard. They wood-shedded repertoire all day under the veterans who headlined the evening concerts. I talked to a lot of last year’s workshop kids, and they were having the time of their lives. Preparing new repertoire for a concert every three or four days—the word most of them used to describe the experience was intense.
That word got out over the winter and this year Menlo’s education program has grown to 35 students. They’ve come not just from the States, but now from Singapore, Sweden, Germany, and Japan—most of their travel expenses, room and board, and two-week crash-course chamber music classes free of charge. To make this happen, festival organizers had to beat the bushes and raise about $8,000 per kid. For 35 students, that’s about 280,000 ways in which Menlo says education is central to the festival and that they’re serious about the survival of great music.
The result, at least in the kids’ opening performance on Friday night, showed in spades. Precision, polish, and sheer punch—this year’s Menlo kids offer the audience a significant notch-up from last year’s crew, which I thought then was outstanding. At times during the Friday concert I closed my eyes and thought I heard a professional group of veterans—not a group of twenty-somethings who’d met three days earlier and started rehearsing Vivaldi.
Menlo appears to be about classical all-stars, but it’s these kids (and others as young as 9) who’ve caught my attention in the early going of Menlo 2004. This is a really good group. Scary good.
August 2, 2004
Last year, Music@Menlo took audiences on a short ride in a fast time machine. Festival organizers wanted to give us the history of classical music in five concerts, beginning in the 18th century’s Baroque age and ending with notes still damp from the composer’s pen. Hundreds of music lovers jumped onboard and in two weeks got a serious case of chronological whiplash. Everyone exited happy, though, eager for another ride this year.
Menlo 2004 is a journey not of time but place. These two weeks are broken into five European regions particularly important for classical music: Italy, Vienna, France, Eastern Europe, and Russia. Each region gets its own concert.
How to do it, how to give an audience member a real sense of music and place in one evening? The approaches are varied. On Friday night, for Italy, nearly two dozen performers played music of 10 composers—all of whose last names ended in ‘i.’ From six in the evening until nearly 10:30 we reveled in Puccini, Vivaldi, Verdi, Steffani, et ali, and got earfuls of music that is mischievous, passionate, and chock-full of melody as only the Italians can write it.
Tonight’s concert (Vienna) takes another tack. The 8 p.m. program features a small handful of performers focused exclusively on the work of one composer, Franz Schubert. Others like Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, and Brahms all called Vienna home, but they were from other parts of Europe. Schubert was native Viennese. A look into his early 19th-century Vienna gives a glimpse of how the city worked musically and how it became such a central place in Western music.
Last year’s festival whipped through time, but tonight’s concert should be like parking for two hours at an overlook and savoring one extraordinary view.
August 3, 2004
Ask a table-full of classical music lovers to name their desert-island composer. Do it on a February evening in the Midwest when the snow is flying hard sideways and you can get a lively conversation started. That was the scene earlier this year, with nine of us hunkered over great food one night in south Minneapolis. We ranged in age from early 20s to early 70s, all of us in love with the music, nearly half of the group professional performers. I couldn’t resist. Who’s your favorite?
Beethoven: 2 votes
Everyone had convincing arguments for their favorite. When it came my turn, I said Franz Schubert, the Austrian born in 1797 who composed 600-plus songs, nine symphonies, string quartets, piano trios, stacks of other pieces—all by the age of 31 when syphilis killed him.
I’ve never been able to articulate exactly why Schubert is my favorite. His way with melody, harmony, drama, transcendence… I wish I could tell you. That snowy night in Minneapolis I made something up that sounded awfully limp.
Last night’s Music@Menlo concert under the California stars brought the memory back again. David Finckel, Wu Han, Christopheren Nomura, Derek Han and others made an all-Schubert program that included his first published song, one of his final chamber pieces, and treasures in between.
“Erl-King” is a five-minute mini-opera for solo voice and piano, and it was one of the first times any composer took the piano seriously when writing a song. It tells the story of a father and his feverish son riding through the night on horseback, the boy crying deliriously that he sees an evil spirit, the Erl-King, about to take his life. Nomura, the father of three sons himself, made it visceral and frightening. Derek Han, who’d never seen the score before yesterday and was almost sight-reading the piece, blazed through the piano part as if the Erl-King was after him personally. Together they made the strongest performance of this song I’ve ever heard.
The next work last night, the E-flat Piano Trio, is one of the great pieces of Western art. Schubert wrote it only months before his death, and it is shot through with shafts of sun and shadow. Han was the hero again. He has a huge career in Europe as a soloist, though we Americans don’t know him so well; Finckel and violinist Philip Setzer couldn’t have hoped for a more brilliantly sensitive collaborator.
These are both big mountaintop pieces. But Schubert was also a domestic composer, a musician of the living room. As if he hadn’t been busy enough already, Derek Han got the evening going with a set of four of Schubert’s four-hand piano pieces. He rubbed elbows and crossed hands with Wu Han (no relation) and reminded me of what good company Schubert must have been to the friends and why they banded so loyally around him in 1820s Vienna.
After two and a half hours of my favorite composer, I’m still no closer to telling you how he reaches that place inside that is just beyond words. But maybe that’s the point. He is the one who can do that, the only composer to make me consider that the greatest gift in this world may simply be a working set of ears.
August 4, 2004
I’m writing from the nursery of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Palo Alto. This (the church, not the nursery) is Music@Menlo’s main performance venue and, with the concert about to start in a few minutes, the nursery, located a few steps from the stage, is the busiest place in the festival.
The recording engineer, Da-Hong Seetoo, has all his gear (laptop, speakers, scores, a jungle of cable and wire) set up on a table opposite the crib. He’s hunched over and pounding away at his laptop, setting it up to record the concert.
The crib is draped with green and blue baby blankets as well as the khaki pants of the festival’s co-artistic director, David Finckel. He’s just changed out of them into his tux. He pulls up a folding chair and plops the score he’ll perform tonight onto the card table next to my laptop. He takes out his cello and a pencil and begins scribbling markings from this afternoon’s dress rehearsal into the score. Since we’re sharing the table, if I type too hard the table wobbles and his pencil marks the wrong beat. If he scribbles too hard, my deathless prose comes out like jgyisl eiw l;a dh.
David is crashing on the score because the cellist who was supposed to perform tonight was warned by her doctor that she risked damaging her hand if she did. David got a few weeks notice, but being boss of the festival hasn’t left him time to prepare. So at this moment he is—well, he’s not exactly playing air cello, but what do you call it when your bow is a No. 2 pencil? In rehearsal all day, shoe-horning administrative work when he can, David also hasn’t had time for supper or lunch. So his ten-year-old daughter comes in with a box of Chinese takeout and shares forkfuls with him while he practices.
Pianist Derek Han paces a small square of the nursery carpet next to a basket of teddy bears. He wipes his forehead—the fourth time in 10 minutes. The singer he was supposed to accompany this evening cancelled yesterday afternoon with laryngitis. The replacement singer landed at the airport a grand total of four hours ago. They’ve run through each of the six songs a grand total of once. Han, who has a major European career as a soloist, has accompanied singers in concert a grand total of zero times. Most of their songs he’s about to play for several hundred people, he’s never seen before noon today. He wipes his forehead again.
For the audience out in the church, things are quieting down. In Music@Menlo’s short life, these people in the church pews have already come to expect a world-class concert—and they’ll get it. That’s what makes these concerts so special: they come off despite all the distractions, the hunger, the whiff of diapers in the nursery, the cancellations, the last-minute cramming…
The stage manager calls for house lights down. There’s the applause. Han straightens his tux jacket and heads for the door to start. “Go get ‘em,” David calls, then turns to me and whispers, “The bravest man in Menlo.”
A snapshot of a California church nursery in the minutes before a concert.
August 5, 2005
The character of this festival shows in surprising places.
The other night before a concert, Music@Menlo’s co-artistic director, David Finckel, came into the festival’s unofficial green room, St. Mark’s nursery, followed by a couple of staffers who were laughing hard. David walked to the rickety little card table where I sit and write and he leaned over so I could get a good look at something on his throat.
I saw nothing other than a man’s nicely shaven neck dressed in a white tux shirt and a black bow tie.
“I don’t see anything,” I said.
“The tie,” he said. “Check out the tie.”
I looked as hard as I could and still saw nothing—it was just a black bow tie, the material maybe a little rougher than most ties, a few loose strings hanging from it.
“I forgot my black tie. All I had was my white one. Everybody else onstage tonight is going to be wearing black ties and my white one looked too hoity-toidy. So I got some tape from the stagehands…”
I looked again. Sure enough. One of the world’s great cellists wasn’t wearing so much a tie, but a tie wrapped in black gaffer’s tape, the cloth tape that stagehands use to tape down cables so no one trips over them.
David did a darn nice job. Every fold of the white tie was perfectly covered and wrapped by the black.
He sat down, opened his cello case and began tuning the instrument.
“Festivals shouldn’t be perfect. I mean, we do everything we can to get the best musicians in the world and make the best performances for the audience. But we’re human. People forget things. I forget things. I forget a tie. So we improvise. It’s about the music, not the tie.”
He finished tuning and then deadpanned me.
“But you have to admit, for gaffer’s tape, it’s not bad, right?”
August 6, 2004
We boarded the Music@Menlo train last night and left Vienna for France. Ara Guzelimian led the trip. He’s Senior Director and Artistic Adviser of Carnegie Hall, and in front of a packed house he presented one of Menlo’s Encounter lectures. These multi-media lectures precede each new Menlo concert series (i.e. Italy, Vienna, France, etc.) and introduce the audience to the music they’ll hear 24 hours later in live performance.
Ara has a special passion for French art, and recently earned the title Chevalier des Arts et Lettres by the French government. He said the award came with “a huge medal about the size of what Soviet generals used to get pinned to their chests.” (When he told his family that he was going to get an actual medal, his eight-year-old son immediately said, “Cool! Can I have it?”).
The concert tonight spotlights Debussy, Ravel, Dutilleux, Faure, and Poulenc. Ara centered last night’s talk on Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and called him the defining composer of the twentieth century. Debussy thought himself not just a composer but first and last a French composer: he had his business cards printed that way; he asked that his gravestone be carved the same, wanting to make it very clear that he was not a German composer.
Ara’s talk was fascinating in how he painted the distinctions between French and German music at that time. Germans were all about overtness of expression: Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler wrote for enormous orchestras whose primary purpose was to declaim. But Debussy and his colleagues were interested in something far subtler. They wanted the idea almost expressed, almost grasped—then gone like smoke between your fingers.
||Edouard Manet sketch
Ara demonstrated with Debussy’s first important work, The Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. The music was written in 1894, based on a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé. While Ara played a recording for the Menlo audience, he had pictures up on the screen of the actual Mallarmé text as it first appeared in 1864. The poem describes the languorous imaginings of a mythical faun on a warm summer’s afternoon. Publishers at the time didn’t think much of the poem so Mallarmé had to publish it himself. His friend, Manet, loved it and illustrated the first edition. Debussy’s Prelude is illusive, the harmonies always shifting here and there, and it opens with a hypnotic melody for unaccompanied flute. Last night Carol Wincenc stood near the back of the hall and played it for us on her instrument. A bewitching moment.
||Left to right: Pianists Wu Han, Philip Fisher; flutist Carol Wincenc
Carol continued to spin magic off of Ara’s thoughts by asking for the hall lights to be completely shut off, and then she played Debussy’s willowy Syrinx for solo flute.
Then, with the lights back up, Ara finished with introductions to the others French composers, wrapping the evening up with Poulenc’s razzle-dazzle Four-Hand Piano Sonata, played by Wu Han and Philip Fisher.
August 7, 2004
Last night, France. Pieces by Ravel, Fauré, Debussy and others who put Paris on the map at the close of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. These men each tried to veer hard away from Germany where composers felt so compelled to express. The French wanted their music restrained yet shimmeringly gorgeous.
So, glisteny music through the night, starting with Anthony McGill’s reading of two Debussy clarinet pieces, Petite Pièce and Première Rhapsodie. McGill is one to watch. He’s only 25 and just landed the principal chair at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, a job he’ll start right after Menlo wraps. (I overheard a hallway conversation between a couple musicians before the concert, one doing a nicely exaggerated Jersey accent in describing McGill’s sound as “pyooah buddah.” Which is accurate.) McGill wowed Menlo last year with Mozart and Stravinsky. Last night it was with Debussy, and next week we’ll hear him in Bartok. He’s got great range and a high-cream content to his playing.
The veterans, flutist Carol Wincenc and pianist Derek Han continue to be the stars of the festival, though, and they showed why again last night in Dutilleux’s 1926 Flute Sonata. Because Han has made his career largely as a concert soloist, he’s just learned most of the chamber repertoire we’re hearing him in. He plays it as if he’s known it for years. Wincenc, on the other hand, has been playing the Dutilleux since she was a teenager. Mix her level of experience with Han’s freshness of approach at the piano—the audience whooped and hollered afterward.
||Mezzo-soprano Milagro Vargas; pianist Gilbert Kalish
Pieces by Poulenc let a trace of café cigarette smoke into St. Mark’s Episcopal. But what I’ll remember most from the evening is the last of a set of Fauré songs done by mezzo Milagro Vargas, “En Sourdine” (Muted). In three minutes it delivers all that the French were aiming at during those years: the emotion held back but deepened because of it; the music sparkling as if it’d just been dipped in springwater. She sang:
- Calm in the half-day
That the high branches make,
Let us soak well our love
In this profound silence.
Let us mingle our souls, our hearts
And our ecstatic senses
Among the pines and the bushes.
Close your eyes halfway,
Cross your arms on your breast,
And from your sleeping heart
Chase away forever all plans.
Let us abandon ourselves
To the breeze, rocking and soft…
August 8, 2004
Today Colin Carr performed all six Unaccompanied Cello Suites by J.S. Bach. He began at 11 a.m., and when he lifted the bow from the strings after the final movement of the Sixth Suite, he’d been playing onstage alone for two and a half hours solid, not a page of score paper in front of him.
It was astonishing first as an act of memorization. To commit that much music to memory and deliver it without batting an eye… Then the mustered concentration to go from one suite to another—each one so distinct—with only a minute or so break. Finally the sheer physical act: it was as if we watched a guy climb six small mountains in a row, each one steeper, craggier, and taller than the one before. Making it look like an easy walk.
I’d never seen or heard anything like it, and from the looks of the audience few others had either. The place was full and extra chairs were added wherever fire code allowed and a few places it didn’t. Students sat on the stair steps leading out of the hall so they could listen, and I could see the feet of the few who didn’t even get a seat on the stairs but were forced to sit on the landing above. I counted exactly one cough that entire time. No one moved throughout the program—until the end when the audience stood roaring and made Carr come back for four curtain calls.
||From one cellist to another
Carr’s effort and accomplishment were stunning. But music, as hard as it is to do well, should never be reduced just to the work involved. Carr brought Bach’s nearly 300-year-old Suites out of his cello like hand-written letters to each of us, describing what it is to be human: joy, despair, loneliness, dignity, dance… Bach had spent the bulk of his life writing music for the church, so it would probably please him to know that on this sunny Sunday morning in the year 2004 at least one of his listeners experienced something very close to holy.
Colin Carr performs the Prelude from Bach's Cello Suite No. 1, recorded on September 19, 1994 at Jordan Hall in Boston, Mass.
August 9, 2004
||Tim Page, Washington Post music critic
The festival shifted its musical focus again last night, away from France and onto Eastern Europe. Tim Page, the Pulitzer-winning critic from the Washington Post, delivered the Encounter lecture that set up tonight’s Czech, Hungarian, and Bohemian composers like Smetana, Bartók, and Dvorák.
Page stressed how important folk tunes and dances were to these composers; how they took folk culture and adapted it to their own use but kept its roots close to the heart. He said they were able to succeed, in part, because they lived and worked in places a bit off the map: their cities like Prague and Budapest were far enough away from glittering Vienna and Paris so they could essentially do their own thing. As a result, the chamber music of Dvorák and Smetana and others we’ll hear tonight have what Post called “a refreshing lack of neurosis, a sense of being not as tightly wound” as others of the period.
August 10, 2004
At any given hour of the Menlo day, these are the sounds you hear surrounding the festival. It’s not all music.
Parrots. There is a particular breed of bird that comes every afternoon to sit on the rooftop of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. They try their best to disrupt the rehearsal in the church below by using what might be called aural sandpaper: part crow-caw, part nails-on-the-blackboard screech. Some of the most sublime moments in chamber music this week have been shot through with parrot squawk. Fortunately about dusk each evening they fly off and let the actual Menlo concert start in peace.
Practice. This year more than last, the classrooms of the Menlo School are booked solid with musicians in rehearsal. They start at 9 a.m., break for lunch in the sun, and then get back at it until suppertime. Every room, every hour of the day. Music leaks out the open windows and if you stand in the middle of the small campus yard snatches of a piano-violin duo fly overhead, a little shred of cello, shavings of a string quartet…as if you were in the eye of a little twister of sound.
Piano Tuners. There are 10 pianos, two harpsichords, and a fortepiano in use at Menlo, and when the keyboardists take a break, especially during the intermission of a concert, the tuners pounce. Tuners—God bless them—are the woodpeckers of music and it’s their job to come with wrenches and felt and pliers and start banging Johnny-one-note on a key until the unwelcome bugs drop out of the tone and the instrument sounds as it should.
||Smetana's Piano Trio in G minor
And then there was this sound tonight during the performance of Smetana’s dark and gorgeous G-minor Piano Trio. He wrote it in 1855 after the death of his five-year-old daughter. Grief runs nearly the whole length of the piece as Smetana tried to recover, but he also put occasional passages of sweet quiet into the music, too. And it was during one of these tonight that from outside St. Mark’s came a baby’s cry. I glanced out the open window to see a man cradling an infant. He gave the baby a bottle and the child immediately settled down, and minutes later when he removed the bottle, the child lay asleep in his arms.
The sounds of Menlo. Not exclusively music.
August 11, 2004
Another note from the Music@Menlo wardrobe department.
Last week I wrote about finding the whole ethos of Menlo wrapped (literally) in black gaffer’s tape around co-artistic director David Finckel’s white bow tie. Well, a few nights ago just before another concert I saw black ink scrawled across the back of David’s white tux shirt. From a distance it looked as if a youngster had gotten into David’s closet and gone to town with a Sharpie pen.
I tried as diplomatically as I could to tell David that he, uh, had something on his shirt and he might want to re-think wearing that one.
He laughed and told me to look closer. It turns out that the scrawl was actual words which I nearly had to stand on my head to read: “David: Even upside down, you’re the best. Love, Marte.”
Chamber music can inspire passionate loyalty. One of David’s greatest supporters is Marte Lamb, who with her husband (brave souls) runs an independent classical record store named Classical Millennium, in Portland, Oregon. She makes it a point to come to every concert David plays throughout the state of Oregon.
[It turns out, that’s quite a few. Up and down I-5 there are several chamber-music-loving towns: Ashland in the south, Portland in the north, in between lie Medford, Grants Pass, Eugene, Corvallis, Salem—each with a chamber music series that often invites the Emerson String Quartet (whose cellist is David Finckel) or the husband-wife cello-piano duo of David Finckel and Wu Han.]
Marte was for many years the much-loved production manager of a summer festival in Portland called Chamber Music Northwest. There in Portland and on the road throughout Oregon she made it a point to help sell Finckel CDs after each concert. David loves to meet people, so after these concerts he goes out to the lobby, takes his tux jacket off, and autographs CDs. About 10 years ago after one concert, Marte simply grabbed a black pen and wrote a message across the back of David’s white tux shirt. Thus began a tradition.
He now has over a dozen white tux shirts customized in black by Marte. I picture David hunched over the table signing CDs. She leans over his back and writes, “David, even upside down…”
If you ever see this perfectly dressed gentleman onstage in a tux, you might ask him in the lobby afterward to see which message from Marte he’s wearing tonight.
August 12, 2004
The Perseid meteor showers began last night and the sky over the San Francisco Peninsula became busy with shooting stars. Several of us sat outside and craned our necks as long as we could. Down they came, scouring the insides of the big black bowl overhead in long white and light-red streaks.
Spielberg couldn’t have timed it better. An hour earlier, we’d heard stars of chamber music’s next generation. The performers ranged from 10 to 26 years old and are Music@Menlo students who’ve come from all over the globe to study with the veterans here. Last night was their night in an informal concert before several dozen people in a large Silicon Valley living room.
I was lucky to sit a few feet from the kids, close enough to count the hairs that snapped and dangled from the bows as they dug into—assailed may be more accurate—their violins, violas, and cellos. Anyone who doubts the future of classical music, or wonders if it “speaks to young people,” should’ve been there.
These kids listen to and love all kinds of music—the iPod was born here—and one of the 13-year-old Menlo violinists has a great collection of Metallica and Limp Bizkit. But last night it was Schubert, Dohnanyi, Brahms, Janacek, Ravel, and the kids played as if it meant as much to them as their next breath. From my proximity, you had to sit back or risk getting your eyebrows singed.
Any one of these kids has the real potential to become a household classical music name. After the concert, under the Perseids, I asked one of the violists if playing onstage made him as happy as he appeared. “Oh yeah,” he said. “Everything falls away when I’m up there. I’m the happiest person on earth when I play this music.”
August 13, 2004
Dr. Charles Barber began his Encounter lecture last night with a threat: we were in for the long haul. He was going to need hours and hours to introduce us to the glories of Russian music. The nation of 11 time zones and 145 million people is the last stop on the 2004 Music@Menlo tour, and the good Dr. Barber was going to do the job right. So, he said, he would talk for 4.5 hours, allow us a midnight nap break, after which we’d reconvene at 1 a.m. and go until a breakfast break, then finish up around noon today.
So he launched in. Two and a half hours later he’d barely taken a breath, and I thought maybe he hadn’t been kidding. But he wrapped it not long after—and it turned out to be the most compelling Menlo Encounter I took in this season.
These multi-media lectures are important for the festival. Every three or four days, the Menlo focus shifts to another country and musical language. Like everywhere else, Silicon Valley audiences are busy with jobs and family so they come to the Encounters expecting a condensed shot of information that’ll increase their enjoyment of the concert the next night.
Barber described a Russia that is largely a mystery to most of us. And it should be, because there is a troubling paradox about Russia: across two millennia, 90 percent of all Russians have lived in grinding, soul-less poverty—yet they produced art, literature, architecture, and music that rank among the glories of humanity.
Barber did his homework. He laid out the major movements of 19th and early 20th century Russian music: the Golden Age of Glinka, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky; the Silver Age of Rachmaninov, Stravinsky, and the phenomenal pianists, violinists, and singers who came West after the 1917 Revolution. Barber’s also recently unearthed in Russia a trove of rare video and audio recordings and his presentation of them provided the framework for his comments. It was coup for us: most of these recordings have never been seen or heard in the US before last night.
We heard Tchaikovsky on a January 1890 evening joking with friends in a nice high tenor voice and even whistling into an Edison Talking Machine. We saw Boris Christoff in a riveting film clip singing the death scene of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. Most striking of all was a 1960s black and white film of David Oistrakh playing the cadenza of Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto: who knew a guy in a tux standing stock-still could be thrilling? But the blazing bow arm and finger work, in music written for him, were remarkable to watch.
The audience left stuffed from Barber’s banquet, yet hungry for the concert tonight.