Music@Menlo is going above and beyond to live up to its 2021 theme, "Gather," with the summer chamber music festival offering a venue for just about every listener.
The 2021 edition of the festival will feature in-person concerts, with options to attend performances indoors or outdoors — or virtually.
Music@Menlo is presenting nine concert programs over three weekends, kicking off Friday, July 16, and running through Sunday, Aug. 1, with live performances taking place at Menlo School in Atherton.
"It's a little more work for the staff and also for the musicians," Wu Han, Music@Menlo's co-artistic director, said of the multiple performance options. "But we miss playing concerts so, so much. Everybody is totally understanding of the importance of gathering and being together, and having a sense of community. So we're giving all those options."
Music@Menlo has a lot to celebrate this year. Not only does the 2021 festival mark a return to in-person concerts, but when audiences and artists do come together indoors, it will be in the Spieker Center, a brand-new concert hall on the Menlo School campus. Concerts in the new hall will be recorded to be presented online.
"It's so beautiful. The interior is just glorious. The school and the design team and Music@Menlo all worked together so the venue is dead quiet and we can do recordings. The stage has wood paneling so the sound is warm," Wu Han said.
She described the recent day that the festival artists first arrived on campus, where music could be heard drifting from the various classrooms into the courtyard near the new hall as the artists rehearsed. People on campus were drawn to the courtyard, gathering around the first opportunity to hear festival music in person in two years.
The 2021 festival theme was inspired by Patrick Castillo's composition "Gather," commissioned by the festival to commemorate the Spieker Center's opening.
Castillo is Music@Menlo's audience engagement director and has been with the festival from its start nearly 20 years ago, but festival audiences may not know that Castillo is also a composer, Wu Han said. On a bittersweet note, this is Castillo's last year with Music@Menlo, as he will be joining the New York Philharmonic as its vice president of artistic planning.
"Gather" was actually commissioned for last year's festival, which took place entirely online due to the pandemic. With the return of in-person performances in 2021, the title of the piece seemed a natural fit for this year's theme, Wu Han said. At two and a half minutes, Castillo's piece is short, but it captures the emotions of an uncertain year.
The piece, written for piano and cello, begins with a kind of murmuring, with the cello and piano not quite together. Then it builds on the tune of a well-known hymn, "Shall we gather at the river" to create a sense of unity.
"It's very philosophical. He wrote it in June of 2020 at the height of the pandemic. In the beginning it is deliberately a little confusing, a little uncertain, then this hymn shows up and we are all gathering again. ... It's kind of unexpected; with a hall opening you're usually expecting a big bang. It's very, very intriguing and quite beautiful," she said.
Wu Han, a pianist, and her co-artistic director, David Finckel, a cellist, will be featured in the opening program, along with pianist Ji Na Kim; violist Matthew Lipman; violinists Kristin Lee and Arnaud Sussman; and double bassist Scott Pingel.
"Gather" leads the July 16 opening program, which also features, for a "big bang," Johannes Brahms' "Scherzo in C Minor" from the F-A-E Sonata and "The Trout," Franz Schubert's Quintet in A major for Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello, and Bass.
The pieces were chosen to contrast with "Gather" and also for the symbolism behind the works. The Brahms Scherzo is one of four movements in a sonata written collaboratively by Brahms, Schumann and Albert Dietrich as a gift for violinist Joseph Joachim, Wu Han said, noting that the Scherzo is the most performed movement from the work and it helped cement Brahms' status as a master.
"It's very declamatory, very celebratory, and it has a friendship story behind it. So it's a perfect sort of opening tribute to all the friendship, to the community and also to the reopening after the pandemic," she said.
The Schubert piece was written over a short period of time for a chamber performance at a patron's country house party, and included, at the patron's request, variations on another of Schubert's compositions.
The festival's overall programming this year offers a lot of intensity, with dramatic, emotional works and joyful ones, according to Wu Han.
"There are a lot of chamber music favorites," she said. But there's also a chance to discover some works that aren't as well known.
The festival's second concert program, on July 17, concludes with a piano trio by 20th-century composer Arno Babajanian that Wu Han calls "powerful." The program also features Mozart's Piano Quartet in G Minor, K. 478 and Schubert's Fantasy in F minor for Piano, Four Hands, op. posth. 103, D. 940. The roster for the July 17 concert features pianists Gilbert Kalish, Hyeyeon Park and Wynona (Yinuo) Wang; cellists Dmitri Atapine and Finckel; violinists Kristin Lee and Tien-Hsin Cindy Wu; and violist Matthew Lipman.
The final program of the opening weekend, on Sunday, July 18, features violists Lipman and Wu; violinists Yeri Roh, James Thompson and Angela Wee; cellists Atapine, Audrey Chen and Sterling Elliott; and pianist Park performing Janacek's Violin Sonata (1914–1915; rev. 1916–1922), Gyorgy Ligett's Sonata for Solo Cello and Brahms' String Sextet no. 1 in B-flat major, op. 18.
As musicians and listeners alike enjoy live performances, the online component offers another option for audiences to experience the festival — one that is likely to stay in place, too.
Music@Menlo's 2020 festival and its 2020-21 season offered an array of online performances and lectures that reached a broader audience than ever before, Wu Han said, with data showing that international listeners as well as local ones attended the performances. With the success of Music@Menlo's online programming, and the importance of ensuring greater accessibility for audiences who may not be able to attend in person, the festival plans to continue offering online programming, according to Wu Han. She also said that she has heard from listeners that Music@Menlo's online offerings brought them comfort and inspiration during some of the most uncertain times.
Whether in-person or online, she said this year's programming aims to bring listeners together to both reflect and celebrate, offering "reminders of how beautiful music can be, and how beautiful this world can be. I found myself in the last year and a half needing music more than ever. It gives you beauty; it gives you hope."
Vaccinations are required for indoor concerts, which will also offer socially distanced seating.
Each program will be performed twice: once indoors and once outdoors. Indoor performances will be recorded.
For more information, visit musicatmenlo.org.