Saturday, July 23, 2022

Music@Menlo, week 1

So I've been busy at the first week of the Menlo chamber music festival: mostly at two concerts I was assigned to review. I hadn't been terrifically thrilled at the idea of a concert with two cantatas and two concertos, but it turned out to be excellent stuff, especially the Cello Concerto by C.P.E. Bach, one of my favorite 18C composers. I managed to get in print one of my odder theories - at any rate I've never seen anyone else propose this, though it seems obvious to me - that when what was called the "Sturm und Drang" style of nervous drama spread around Germanic music in the early 1770s, the composers were just imitating what C.P.E. Bach had been doing for the previous 20 years.

On the other hand, I was looking forward to the concert of music for winds, but it turned out rather disappointing, mostly because the pieces by Haydn and Beethoven were bottom-drawer stuff, not very good. They were, however, performed excellently, so there's that.

Besides the Prelude concerts featuring two performances of the rare Beethoven quartet for piano and strings, described in the reviews, I got to two more Prelude concerts featuring two performances of the Mendelssohn Op. 13 quartet by a group called the Abeo Quartet. Op. 13 is one of my favorite quartets, a big and hefty work, and it really felt like having been on a long journey with these performers by the time it was done. Thrilling to get it twice.

Two small boys were sitting in front of me for that and a Brahms Viola Sonata, neither of them very beginner-friendly works. But they didn't squirm too badly.

Also a couple of master-classes for the student and young professional performers, concentrating on putting the work across to an audience. One of the instructors said he didn't like shoulder rests for violins because of the angle it makes you sit at, or something. As if in sympathy, the second violinist's shoulder rest fell off onto the floor with a clang as she lowered the instrument after the slow movement of the Mendelssohn.

But the highlight of the week was a two-hour (plus intermission) lecture on the Haydn quartets by violinist Aaron Boyd, whose combination of erudition, wit, and fluency would make for a winning show even if I hadn't already been in the market for a good overview of this repertoire. Haydn wrote 68 quartets and Boyd couldn't cover them all, but about half got a treatment and all the sets they were published in got generally described. Except for the introduction and coda, Boyd sat with three colleagues from the festival's main artists - violinist James Thompson, violist Paul Neubauer, and cellist David Finckel - and about half of the time was spent playing excerpts from the quartets, plus examples showing Haydn's influence not just on Mozart and Beethoven, but Bartok and Schoenberg. The emphasis was on the audacious originality and imagination that went into Haydn's quartets, ideas that sometimes became so standard they're hard to recognize for what they are. For instance, Haydn apparently invented what Boyd called "beginning before the beginning," that is setting a repeating accompaniment running for a bar or two before bringing in the theme. You hear that at the start of Mozart's K.550 G-minor symphony and Beethoven's Ninth, he pointed out; he did not point out that it's the same thing as "vamping till ready" and so standard in pop music that you'd hardly think anyone had to invent it. I wish I'd taken notes of which of the quartets played I was already familiar with, but it was a thoroughly enlightening and enjoyable evening.

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