By Tiffany Lam | Special to the Almanac
It's difficult to imagine the Bay Area chamber music scene without the Music@Menlo summer festival. Each year, a theme is selected as the festival's centerpiece. And, each year, it's a little different.
The twelfth season, from July 18 to Aug. 9, is titled "Around Dvorak" and focuses not only on the music, but also the life, of Czech composer Antonin Dvorak. According to festival co-founder Wu Han, "There are few composers in history that deserve the treatment given to Dvorak by this year's festival."
Antonin Dvorak was born in Bohemia, near Prague, in 1841. He traveled to the United States, where for three years in the 1890s he wrote inspired music, Wu Han (who goes by both names) noted. When he returned to Prague, he became one of the most prominent composers of his time. He died in 1904 at the age of 62.
"He has made tremendous contributions to chamber music," Wu Han said. "He was and is one of the most beloved composers."
Music@Menlo events are held on the Atherton campus of Menlo School the festival's headquarters and in the Performing Arts Center at Menlo-Atherton High School.
A shift 'From Bach'
The chamber music festival's theme last year was titled "From Bach." As the title implies, programs began with compositions from the German composer, then branched off to a wide variety of works influenced by Bach.
"We always try to do something completely opposite of the year before," Wu Han said. "This year, it's much more focused. We're not going from a composer to something bigger. Like the title says, the programs revolve around Dvorak. It's examining his surroundings and his influences."
The eight concert programs include works by Brahms, Haydn and Beethoven, all of whom represent aspects of Dvorak's life and work. "We have to touch his influences and mentors," she said. "We are examining how Vienna influenced Prague. Brahms and Dvorak are centerpieces of the two cities."
An American influence
Unlike the traditional Viennese Classicism of many other composers of the era, Dvorak's music had a wide range of influences. "He has contributed an incredible amount of literature and repertoire to multiple music genres," said Wu Han.
Among these influences are Bohemian folk music and, perhaps more surprisingly, American folk. One of the concert programs, titled "American Visions," focuses entirely on Dvorak's influence in America, where he led a rising generation of American composers and rose to prominence himself.
"It will start off with 'The Union' from Louis Moreau Gottschalk, and you'll feel like you're going to a Fourth of July party. It ends with 'American Songbook II' from George Crumb, who is still alive today. He puts four percussionists in the accompaniment part, and then sets folk songs on top of his own accompaniment," noted Wu Han.
The festival offers a range of programs, some free, but most charging admission. Cafe Conversations allow audiences to participate in music- and arts-related discussions, and are held each weekday throughout the festival at 11:45 a.m. at Menlo School. There is no admission charge.
David Beveridge and William Lobkowicz will join the festival as leaders of "Encounter" sessions a series of evening-length events led by music authorities.
Mr. Beveridge, an esteemed musicologist, is working on the most comprehensive treatment ever of the life and work of Dvorak. Mr. Lobkowicz is a descendant of the Lobkowicz family, patrons of Haydn and Beethoven.
Go to musicatmenlo.org for more information regarding the Music@Menlo festival, including this year's program, event schedule, and ticket information.
To complement this year's festival, Music@Menlo artistic directors David Finckel and Wu Han will lead a tour through Prague in September to explore Eastern European art, culture, and music.
During the tour, travelers will visit Dvorak's birthplace and areas where he spent his youth. The trip will offer a concert in his birth house, an exclusive banquet in a castle, and a meeting with the descendants of the Lobkowicz family. Space is limited.
Go to musicatmenlo.org/travel/cruise to make reservations.