The Music@Menlo summer chamber music festival’s theme this year is “Creative Capitals.” The signature concerts are organized around distinguished European cities and the great music created or heard there. And although it was Bastille Day, the festival began on Saturday, July 14, with a concert for London.
England was long derided by others as “the land without music.” But of course it always had some, even if it had to be imported. The two biggest pieces on Saturday’s program at the Menlo-Atherton Center for Performing Arts were of this kind.
They were definitely big, too. Menlo is hardly just a chamber music festival anymore if it can summon up an entire chamber orchestra of 12-14 performers to play pieces like a Handel concerto grosso or Grieg’s “Holberg Suite.”
The Handel, his Op. 6, No. 5, in D Major, was an invigorating treat, crisp and bouncy. It combined the somber tone color of Handel’s teacher, Arcangelo Corelli, with the drive and fervor of the other model concerto grosso author, Antonio Vivaldi. This made for an excellent combination. The players’ chamber music background showed in their ability, even with a small orchestra, to express minute variations of volume and emphasis, contributing character to the piece. The numerous solos of concertmaster Paul Huang were as smooth and energetic as the ensemble work.
Handel, of German birth, came to England to live. Grieg, a Norwegian, only visited to give concerts, but his works became popular there. The “Holberg Suite” is a neo-Baroque piece that goes well with Handel as long as they’re not placed in too tight a proximity. They were heard at opposite ends of this concert.
The Grieg, led by Arnaud Sussmann, was less dynamic than the Handel, focusing more on the music’s delicate lyricism. But the fast sections were peppy enough, and the individual lines, including obscure inner parts, stood out boldly. This was another masterful rendition of chamber music writ large.
One more brief work by a frequent visitor to England, Felix Mendelssohn’s early Fugue for string quartet (published as his Op. 81, No. 4), was led by violist Jenni Seo in an appropriately dark and solemn tone.
Toward the turn of the 20th century, notable native-born composers began reappearing in England after 200 years. Works by the two greatest of these filled out the concert. Ralph Vaughan Williams, though he learned much from French and German music, is thought of as the insular, folk-oriented English composer, while Benjamin Britten, some 40 years younger, is considered more of an internationalist. In this concert, Britten emerged as the winner.
He was represented by a rarely-heard early work, the Suite for Violin and Piano, Op. 6. Though modernist in idiom, it is so delightful and witty that it charmed all present. Violinist Angelo Xiang Yu is lanky and physically expressive. He handled Britten’s harmonics and double-stops, his off-kilter waltz and chattering moto perpetuo, his abrupt and arresting alternations between heavy declarative grinding and the wispiest of fragmented notes, with absolute assurance and a series of grimaces and bodily contortions. Meanwhile, pianist Gloria Chien made a limber job of playing mostly heavy chords for Yu to prance in front of.
Vaughan Williams’ song cycle “Songs of Travel,” setting poems of Robert Louis Stevenson, was his first major work and made his reputation. It has a directness and contemplative air rare in art songs. However, it was not entirely well-served on this occasion. A dusty drawing-room air suffused the music. Kang Wang has such a stately and rounded voice that, despite his best efforts, the words were almost unintelligible, and they were not printed in the program. He is credited as a tenor, but he’s a baritone, essaying a part that goes higher than his voice can reach. At least Gilbert Kalish played the accompaniment with quietly brilliant expression.