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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