Sunday, July 23, 2023

Music@Menlo, week one

It's the first week of the local chamber music festival, and I've been keeping moderately busy there. I reviewed the first mainstage concert, which was the Baroque installment in a six-concert history of chamber music. This was more successful than the miscellaneous-looking listing in the program book promised. A crisp concerto for four violins and no accompaniment by Telemann and a soprano solemnly hooting her way through Handel arias delighted me most. I'll be back for reviewing more in this series later.

I'll also get to hear a few more of the short prelude concerts, of which this week I only went to the one before the mainstage event. It featured the return of the Dohanyi Piano Quintet No. 1, a piece Menlo puts on, usually in this spot, frequently. Sometimes it's dynamite and sometimes just OK. This one was just OK. The Beethoven C-minor piano trio also gets played fairly often; this was better than usual, mostly due to the pianist's ability to make a modern grand sound like a circa 1800 fortepiano.

Saturday was the first of the three weekly Young Performers concerts. A couple dozen kids, mostly late teens but ranging down (the youngest this year is 11, which is high by past years' standards) are chosen each year, sorted into groups each week and assigned to play a movement or two of an appropriate work, and they always do an amazingly professional job. I'd been looking forward to hearing Schumann's Piano Quintet divided between two groups, but one of them lost their pianist and were reassigned to a Haydn quartet instead, which they did very well; the others dropped the scherzo and just played the finale. This was not only technically admirable but really caught the vitality of the work. This impressed me all the more, as last Tuesday I heard them play the scherzo in a master class with one of the senior violinists, and while they had all the notes I thought they lacked some oomph. So evidently they really progressed in the intervening week, and after the concert I caught their cellist and paid her my compliments.

I've also been to three talks, all of them focused on the other concert series, a survey of the Beethoven quartets, none of which actual concerts I'm going to. They're in the small hall so they quickly sold out, and I haven't been asked to review any of them. But the topic interests me, and I couldn't miss talks by Jan Swafford and Aaron Boyd, who are both terrific lecturers. Swafford, who is a music historian and biographer, talked on Beethoven's compositional procedures, most relevantly postulating that in his early Op. 18 quartets Beethoven was not ready to challenge Haydn on his own turf so he took a relatively modest approach, but six years later in Op. 59 he was prepared to go full Beethoven on him. I fancy not all scholars would agree with this interpretation. But Swafford spent most of his time analyzing the "Eroica" Symphony, which is not on the program at a chamber music festival, but at least he was the first person I've encountered to have an answer to a question which seems to have puzzled most commentators: if the symphony is a portrait of a hero (initially Napoleon, until his crowning as Emperor disillusioned Beethoven about him), why is the second movement his funeral march? Swafford's answer is that the first movement portrays a battle, and the funeral march is the one after the battle, not the hero's personal funeral. That makes the scherzo the return to cheerfulness that occurs after mourning.

Boyd, one of Menlo's senior violinists, gave an elegant overview of the classical Viennese quartets, rather implying that greatness in chamber music composition ended after that, and then introduced us to the characteristic styles of several mid-20C quartet ensembles, rather implying that greatness in performing ended after them. He didn't mean that literally in either case, but the impression came across because Boyd is an unapologetic elitist in art, a rather bold position to take nowadays. He criticized the premise of "historically informed performances" in exactly the same terms that the late Richard Taruskin used to, and he issued a regret at recent decreases in attention span and its impact on classical music, though he had to modify that in the light of all the excellent youngsters Menlo is able to find every year.

I thought of my own first encounter. I craved music as a child, but though I enjoyed some popular stuff - not the pop songs of the day, which were mostly crap (the good ones have survived), but things like my parents' musical theater records - it didn't really satisfy me. Stumbling across some of the big heavy classics opened up a world of music I hadn't known about, and they had the heft - the weight and size - that satisfied my cravings and has ever since.

The third talk was by the Calidore Quartet, the ensemble (and a really terrific one: I've heard them before) who are performing the Beethoven cycle. They told how the pandemic gave them the opportunity to work on the entire cycle. Like other quartet ensembles I've heard talk, they consider the Beethoven quartets to be the greatest music ever by the greatest composer ever, so there's no reason not to invest the time.

Menlo isn't entirely retro in its repertoire - the last concert in the mainstage program is entirely living composers, and its historical material goes into some odd corners like the Dohnanyi - but its focus is definitely on the traditionally great.

No comments:

Post a Comment