Music@Menlo highlights the great Schubert

From left, Paul Neubauer, viola and Juho Pohjonen, piano.

The Music@Menlo chamber music festival, which enlivens the Menlo School and Menlo-Atherton High School campuses for three weeks every summer, is focusing this year on the music of Franz Schubert. Schubert was insanely prolific in a short life of only 31 years, and wrote enough great chamber music easily to fill a festival like this one.

Last Sunday’s concert, at the Stent Family Hall on the Menlo School campus, for instance, focused on Schubert’s music from just one year, 1824. That was the year of the Octet for strings and winds, an enormous piece over an hour long for an unusually large chamber ensemble. It received a genially rustic performance, rough and hearty, from a distinguished set of players.

Schubert wrote the piece on commission from a clarinetist, so he knew to make the clarinet the most prominent. That part was played by the Israeli-American clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein with a firm rather than supple line. He frequently traded material with first violinist Sean Lee, who played in light, sweet tones.

The other instruments all had much to say as well, but most eyes were on the cello. The scheduled cellist had injured his hand and was unable to play this performance. So Menlo’s co-artistic director, David Finckel, a veteran cellist of great renown, hastily but securely stepped in to the vacant place. Thus it was he who emitted those terrifying rumbles that feature so strongly in the cello part of the Octet’s finale.

Another epic work of Schubert’s from 1824, not quite so long but even more exhausting, is the “Wanderer” Fantasy for piano. This is so complex a work that Schubert himself, though a competent pianist, couldn’t play his own composition. On Sunday it was tackled by the Finnish pianist Juho Pohjonen, a slight-looking man with great reserves of power. No matter how fierce the music or how full it was of complicating cascades, he always kept the chords clean and separated, and the melodic line smooth and clear. Charm is outside this grandiose work’s vocabulary, yet this performance was, at least, tuneful and captivating.

Pohjonen also provided the accompaniment for a pair of Schubert songs, sung evenly and with character by the baritone Nikolay Borchev, and for a far lesser-known 1824 Schubert masterpiece, a sonata for arpeggione and piano. The arpeggione, a kind of bowed guitar that was played like a cello, was then newly invented, and this sonata is the only major work ever written for it. Arpeggiones, and their players, being in short supply these days, its place was taken by a viola played by Paul Neubauer, which seemed well-suited for the gentle, lyrically song-like music.

Fine evening concerts like this are hardly the only reason to visit Menlo. Most such concerts are preceded by smaller “prelude performances” by the young professionals of Menlo’s Chamber Music Institute International Program. These are of excellent quality. Sunday’s featured a gracious performance of Mozart’s K. 493 piano quartet and a stirring one of Brahms’ thicker Op. 87 piano trio. The “preludes” are free, and seating may be secured by visiting the Menlo website at 9 a.m. on the day of the performance.

There’s more to Menlo. Each week there’s a marathon performance by the Institute’s Young Performers, impressively accomplished students ranging in age from 11 to 18. Those are also free. There are master classes, where the seasoned professionals of the evening programs tutor the younger ones of the International Program before an audience, also free. There are lectures and talks, some free and some ticketed. Wander around the Menlo campus during the day and you may hear the students rehearsing outside on the lawn.

Menlo runs through Aug. 8, and tickets for some events are still available. Information is at the website,

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