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THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING!

THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING!

Chamber Works Focused 1850-1945 

By Paul Hertelendy 
artssf.com, the independent observer of San Francisco Bay Area music and dance 
Week of July 20-27, 2016
Vol. 18, No. 78

ATHERTON, CA—During the summer doldrums, count on Music@Menlo to liven up the scene with prime chamber music.
Admittedly, it’s a challenge, given this year’s Russian theme. Serious Russian music didn’t stir noticeably  till Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert were gone.

But in the opening week, Music@Menlo offered a package of early works by Shostakovich and Arensky, aided by outsiders  Mahler and von Dohnányi.

Music@Menlo is a split-level three-week enterprise. The mainline concerts feature a rotating cast of some 34 veteran musicians from all over. And a companion concert set brings on 41 young professionals here for advanced coaching, playing, mixing and mingling. Given the cost of the strong educational emphasis, only 15 percent of the budget is covered by tickets, the rest by donors.

The “Dark Passions” concert of July 19 unveiled four late romantic works, early efforts of the composers, all in the turbulent  gusts of minor keys. What stood out was the virtuosity  and close ensemble play of the musicians, even though some had not met each other till the first rehearsal.

The only glimmer of modernity came via Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 1 (1923), built mostly on a three-note falling chromatic scale. Even though the composer himself was a pianist, this is primarily a duo between violin and cello, with emphatic outbursts, and the piano on hand to provide some unifying stitching.

The biggest work was the Piano Quintet No. 2 (1914) by the Hungarian von Dohnányi, an ardent, passionate piece, with close harmonies of the strings (beautifully rendered), but too close a relationship to Brahms’ precedents. The composer’s  famous satirical side peeks through in the middle movement. Paul Neubauer was the notable violist.

Arensky’s Piano Trio No. 1 (1894) vacillated bwetween full-throated romanticism and sentimentality. His Scherzo was quirky and playful, with tricky rhythms. He called on furious bowing too, memorably executed by Paul Huang and Clive Greensmith, in part overshadowed by the highly-charged  piano work of Gloria Chen.

Also included was a one-movement fragment by the student Mahler, who had left us very little chamber music. None of his later sonic inventiveness emerged here in the A Minor Piano Quartet, which featured the festival’s co-directors, Wu Han on piano and David Finckel on cello.

Now, with the minor keys and dark passions out of the way, Menlo can embark on cheerier musical voyages between now and Aug. 6. This program is being repeated only on July 20.

Music@Menlo, a chamber music festival in its 14th season, “Russian Reflections.” This was the 2nd of seven concert programs. At the Menlo-Atherton Center for Performing Arts. For info: (650) 331-0202, or go online.

©Paul Hertelendy 2016
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Paul Hertelendy has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish — and a certain amount of salsa — for years.

These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly) will focus on dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into books (by authors of the region), theater and recordings by local artists as well.
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WAS IT THE FAULT’S FAULT?

WAS IT THE FAULT’S FAULT?

MacMillan Thwarts the Jinxes at Cabrillo

MISSION SAN JUAN BAUTISTA, CA—I was sure that San Andreas, whose great earthquake fault lay just 50 yards away, had jinxed the grand-finale concert at the Mission.

But lo, a rousing James MacMillan trumpet concerto called “Epiclesis,” powerful enough to wake the dead and maybe nudge open the Pearly Gates, saved the day. Quoting ageless Gregorian chants calling to God, the veteran Scottish composer helped the cause of concert salvation Aug. 16.

The fitting closure had super-virtuoso Tine Thing Helseth padding down the main church’s aisle, barefoot like a penitent, with her trumpet ever fainter in the distance.

Great theater—and assertive music, too.

In the body of the concerto, the Norwegian soloist Helseth was resplendent in the coloratura trumpet register above the staff, launching bright, upfront sonic tattoos in an unorthodox solo built with rhythms rather than themes.

Though much swathed in mysticism and spirituality, MacMillan has a gift for turning his ensemble into a wild, untamed beast. In another of his adroit, versatile touches, he has Helseth joined by two others, spatially quite separate, for an elevated trumpet trio.

As for the jinx elements: Freeway jams delaying instruments and personnel held up the matinee concert for 25 minutes. Subsequently, during Ana Lara’s music, a patron in the third row fainted in the 90-degree heat. Maestra Alsop alertly stopped the music. The call you always yearned to hear (once) went out: “Is there a doctor in the house?” While attendants ministered to the patient, Alsop used a score to fan the victim’s air access. Once the stricken one walked out, Alsop took the podium again and coolly resumed at the very spot where she had stopped.

The flip side: Lara might have been dismayed over the break, but there are worse things than having patrons faint on hearing your music—a concert phenomenon very rare since the days of Franz Liszt! The 56-year-old Mexican composer had contributed words without song for the orchestra, “Angels of Flame and Ice,” citing four ardent poems in Spanish by Francisco Serrano. She does her exquisite tone-painting with varied brushes, ranging from soft-deft iridescent beauty to fiery agitation resonating through the entire church. I liked her dark Wagnerian brass at the start (for “Angel of Darkness”) as well as the soprano sax solo weaving its mysteries.

Music reflecting faith is never far off in the mission church repertory, and Christopher Rouse’s “Supplica” (Supplication) fit the mold. Rouse manages to turn out very reliable, traditional music, at times recalling the sanctity of “Parsifal” as much as the rich harmonies of composers like Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Charles Halka’s brief “Impact” hit exactly that musically, with a musical steep drop and WHOOMPH, several times over. He’s a colorful orchestrator, with some enticing sounds of the sort we encountered in the movie “Pan’s Labyrinth,” taking paths through fascinating forests. There are bell-like resonances and bowed cymbals, and more than a few glissandi. Halka, 33, is Houston-based, about to move to Las Vegas.

Overall MSJB judgment: A strong concert repertory, appropriately chosen for this intimate awe-inspiring 218-year place of worship, whose beauties greatly outweight its ultra-resonant acoustics. And once again, the San Juan Mission provided mussical adventures almost beyond compare.

Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, Marin Alsop music director, playing Aug. 1-16 in Santa Cruz (CA) County. For info: (831) 426-6966, or go online.

©Paul Hertelendy 2015
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Paul Hertelendy has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish — and a certain amount of salsa — for years.

These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly) will focus on dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into books (by authors of the region), theater and recordings by local artists as well.
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