Magic at Menlo

Oliver Condy visits an extraordinary chamber music festival in Silicon Valley

‘We’re so excited to be able to perform this quartet for you this afternoon, because we’ve not learned this piece before,’ violinist Laura Keller tells the audience at Menlo-Atherton High School who've turned up to hear her and three other students from Music@Menlo’s International Program perform their demanding 'Prelude Performance'. Their chosen work, Shostakovich’s searing Eighth, is a personal, moving and often disturbing memorial to the victims of the Second World War allied bombings of Dresden – so how could young musicians gathered together in Silicon Valley on the west coast of America begin to probe the deeper levels of a work that the composer confessed to crying at each time he heard it?

But then they begin. And the starkness of their playing, their taught ensemble, precise intonation and staggering technique coupled with their ability to shock the listener in the quartet’s most distressing, agonised passages, takes the breath away. This is playing of the highest order, worthy of the most seasoned and experienced Shostakovians.

Music@Menlo was set up ten years ago by cellist David Finckel (lately of the Emerson Quartet before he decided to leave in order to devote his time to other projects) and his wife, the pianist Wu Han. Dubbed ‘America’s power couple of chamber music’, Finckel and Wu Han also run the Lincoln Center’s Chamber Society of New York alongside projects in South Korea and China, while still performing as a duo all over the world. Music@Menlo is, they’d tell you, dear to their hearts. Set within a community that is relatively starved of live classical music the rest of the year, Music@Menlo brings the local community together in three weeks of top-class chamber music. But it also gives talented students from the area and beyond a chance to study with, and learn from, some of the world’s greatest musicians. With considerable financial and personal support from individuals and businesses from the surrounding area (money isn’t so much an issue in Silicon Valley, with individual donors contributing tens of thousands of dollars at a time), the festival has grown to be a compelling mix of outstanding professional concerts, extraordinary performances by younger rising stars (such as the Shostakovich quartet), masterclasses, talks and ‘CafĂ© Conversations’, where top artists impart valuable knowledge and advice on performance.

For violinist Jennifer, midway through her studies at New York’s Juilliard School and one of the International Program’s gifted students, Music@Menlo is the opportunity to concentrate on high-level chamber music, something she says is not prioritised at the Juilliard. The problem isn’t that chamber music isn’t represented – it’s that the Juilliard’s culture empowers individual music-making over and above the thrill of making music as a group. It’s a view shared by her peers – that conservatoires around the country are more geared to training the soloists of the future than they are to developing America’s next generation of chamber musicians. All of Menlo’s International Program students – strings players and pianists from 18-30 – have a pedigree to match most established professionals: renowned teachers at famous conservatoires, multiple competition prizes and a list as long as your arm of concerto engagements with internationally recognised orchestras.

The students are coached daily by Music@Menlo’s visiting soloists and ensembles (who certainly sing for their supper, giving several concerts during their fleeting time in California) which this year include clarinetist Anthony McGill, pianist Gilbert Kalish, the Escher and Pacifica Quartets… Although each student is given fair warning of the repertoire they’ll be tackling with their fellow course members, Menlo is the first time many of them meet in order to prepare for the festival’s ‘Prelude Performances’, in my view, the highlight of the festival. A hothouse without a hothouse mentality, Menlo School provides the facilities for these ten or so young musicians to live, breathe and sleep chamber music. And come out smiling.