A couple of interviews, a couple of master classes, a couple of concerts. That was the plan for my third day anyway. But you know what they say about the best-laid plans!
I had the chance to interview Bill VerMeulen in the late morning. When he’s not playing principal horn with the Houston Symphony, he’s teaching at Rice—a fact he’s particularly proud of.
“I have a success rate of 92%,” he said. We hear all the time about how there are too many musicians coming out of the schools and not enough jobs for them. Apparently that’s not so much of an issue for the students of Bill VerMeulen. His protégés land some of the best gigs in the country. Makes me wonder if my career would be different if I’d studied with him as a young horn player! During the summer Bill travels almost non-stop to festivals around the country. He says it’s very uncommon for him to come across more than one or two musicians that he HASN’T played with before!
After Bill came Geraldine Walther, the violist who’s leaving her 30-year post with the San Francisco Symphony to play with the Tackás Quartet. What an extraordinary woman—she NEVER stops smiling! She’s absolutely ebullient. You can just throw out that stereotype of jaded professional musicians. Here’s a woman who loves making music—and helping others to do the same.
I’d planned on attending a “Caf
The Young People’s Chorus of New York City add some "choralography" to their rendition of Strayhorn’s "Take the A Train"
The National Chorus of Korea
There’ve been a couple of knockout choirs so far at the Symposium, and they’re both from Norway. For their performance yesterday afternoon, the Oslo Chamber Choir stood in the auditorium aisles right next to the audience. Their conductor, Grete Pedersen, has made an intense study of Norwegian folksong and years ago began teaching it to her choir, encouraging them in rehearsal to make up their own harmonies and counter-melodies. During the concert she made the oddest hand gestures to her singers, but what music came out! Afterward I learned that Pedersen has developed a kind of private language of the hands that lets her “call out” a tune on the spur of the moment: if she makes the shape of a fish in the air in front of her, her singers know it’s that old tune about catching cod or some such and someone will start singing it; once the tune is laid down each singer riffs on it until the hall is filled with most haunting sounds, and if you closed your eyes you were half a world away by some blue-green fjord.
Later, the Oslo sextet known as Nordic Voices worked against expectation. I mean, you think a Norwegian choir is going to do Norwegian music, but they did Renaissance motets and bawdy old French chanson with such crystal purity that you could’ve heard a pin drop. Their last number was little more than a collection of amorous birdcalls from 16th-century France, but they had such fun with it that the audience began laughing. When was the last time you heard that at an early music concert?
So, score two points for Norway!
Minnesota-Norway PS: I was walking with one of the basses from the Oslo Chamber Choir when he ran across a Norwegian soprano outside the Kyoto Conference Center, a woman he hadn’t seen in years since they both sang in the St. Olaf College Choir.
Here’s some photos I shot today:
1. The Guangdon Experimental Middle School Choir from China
2. Coro Victoria from Guatemala
3. Parahyangan Catholic University Choir from Indonesia
Let me take you back to my first night here for just a second. When Michael Steinberg stood on stage before his wonderful Beethoven presentation he took a moment to thank some folks. One of them was Patrick Castillo, the festival’s Artistic Administrator. Michael went on to say “I don’t know how anyone in the country can run a music festival without Patrick!” That’s some pretty high praise—especially considering the source. It got me thinking, “What a perfect person to talk to about the making of Music@Menlo. He’s been with Wu Han and David Finckel from the beginning and keeps the festival moving like a well-oiled machine!”
Yesterday morning I convinced Patrick to tell me some of the history and how the program has evolved so much in its 3 short seasons. I never made it to the coaching session I’d planned to attend—I pulled out a microphone and recorded his very unique perspective on the festival, its past and its future.
Later in the day I had the pleasure of interviewing one of the most amazing musicians I’ve ever come across. Anthony McGill is the Principal Clarinetist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Before that he was Associate Principal Clarinetist of the Cincinnati Symphony. He tours extensively as a chamber musician and has been on board with Music@Menlo since its pilot—a sort of day-long mini festival a few years back. Did I mention he’s 25 years-old? Considering everything he’s accomplished, I tend to believe this man when he tells me that chamber music performance is vital for a young musician.
And then there was music…
I arrived at the Stent Family Hall on the Menlo School campus a half-hour before the concert was set to begin. There was already a line that wrapped around the building and a “SOLD OUT” sign at the ticket table. People were being turned away! Inside the Spieker Ballroom every seat was filled. I had to sit in the very back. Now, when I attend a concert, I often close my eyes. It helps me to concentrate on what I’m hearing—and, especially in the case of chamber music, it allows me to pretend. I can imagine I’m in some cozy 18th-century salon experiencing music as someone of that time would have. Last night I didn’t need to close my eyes. This elegant hall includes a huge hearth and gold-gilded ceilings and walls. The track lighting isn’t exactly candelabras, but I’m willing overlook that small point.
When the audience finally stopped applauding the musicians’ entrance, we were treated to a program including Haydn’s Piano Trio in E Mozart’s Quintet for Horn and Strings and Septet for Winds and Strings by the star of this years festival: Beethoven. Just as we broke for intermission I heard a woman in front of me say to no one in particular “Well, THAT was impressive.” Understated, but true.
Today I’m off for more interviews. With a little luck I’ll be speaking with festival newcomer William “Bill” VerMeulen. He’s a French horn player (not that I have a bias towards them, or anything!). Also hoping to catch Geraldine Walther. I’m told that after serving as principal violist with the San Francisco Symphony for nearly 30(!) years, the musical community here is heartbroken that she’s stepping down. She has a good reason, though. Ms. Walther has recently been appointed violist of the Takacs String Quartet.
Tonight I’ll catch an encore of last night’s concert, this time at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. I’m anxious to hear how different the program sounds in this venue. I’ve been invited to hobnob at post-concert party, so don’t expect a report TOO early tomorrow!
The concerts are the highpoint of the Symposium, but between these everyone scurries off to take in as many of the workshops as possible. Symposium attendees are largely choir directors, and these workshops offer them a chance to learn new repertoire and tricks of the trade while on summer break. This morning I stopped in for snippets of a lecture on South American choral music, another on the African tradition, still another a master class for conductors.
This master class was notable because here was a small, not-especially-great choir of about 20 singers working through a Brahms motet (Warum ist das Licht gegeben) under one of Europe’s grand old choral men, Sweden’s Dan-Olof Stenlund. He’d been handed four 20-something conductors to tutor in this two-hour session. They got their money’s worth.
Stenlund stood baleful and impatient at their elbow while each one worked—or tried to.
“What’s your left hand doing? Why is it doing it? Not like that! The choir’s flat, how will you get them in tune now?” He was the grumpy uncle just awakened from a nap, stopping the young conductor before a bar of music had passed.
Choral music at its best is a slice of heaven. But watching it become its best can be like observing the creation of sausage or legislation. We in the audience began to squirm, feeling lucky just to be seated and not up there being slow-roasted with the young conductors.
A small Gagaku ensemble performed a lunchtime concert in the World Choral Conference Center. Gagaku is the oldest Japanese performing art, combining vocal and instrumental music as well as dance and religious ceremony. This ensemble contains wind, string, and percussion instruments, and their music dates from the fifth century.
What’s that quote from Picasso—”art washes away from the soul the dust of every day life”? My soul was pretty dusty by yesterday afternoon. Too little sleep coupled with all those little travel nuisances did not have me in the best frame of mind when I made it to the Menlo School yesterday. I had to hit the ground running. There was just enough time for me to meet Wu Han and David Finckel (artistic directors of the festival) before being rushed off into a master class he was giving with a student quartet. I was tired and grumpy and hungry—and then they began to play. I forgot everything. I’d close my eyes for awhile, opening them every now and then only to be surprised see such exquisite music coming from four teenagers in jeans and sneakers. After they’d finished, David Finckel spent some time working a few spots with them and I was really struck by his sense of humor and how easily he related to these students.
Later that evening, Michael Steinberg gave a 2 1/2 hour presentation on Beethoven. I couldn’t believe the applause when he stepped out onto the stage. This man is revered here, and for good reason. I have a special interest in the intersection of music with history and geography. Michael incorporated pictures, recordings and live performances into this “Encounter” that kept his audience (a full one, I might add) riveted.
Something that I noticed throughout the day was the way Wu Han just embraces everyone—literally and figuratively. She makes you feel like a part of the family. Her excitement for the festival is totally infectious.
So, there it is, day one. Today I’ll sit in on a couple of coaching sessions and attend a master class in the afternoon. Tonight I’ll enjoy more Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart (Horn Quintet—YEAH!) at the lovely, intimate Stent Family Hall. This is what they meant by “chamber music.” I’m told that the demand for tickets is so high that they may have to cut some of the seats reserved for press!
Between the front door of the Kyoto Concert Hall and my seat in the auditorium, I overheard snatches of Finnish, Dutch, Aussie English, Spanish, a Canadian “eh?” and German—all of it laid on a bed of Japanese-like birthday sprinkles tossed on a kid’s cake. The Symposium is the U.N. General Assembly of music. But if the reach of this event is global, the work of putting it on is intensely local. So the 2005 Symposium opened today with a concert that celebrated Japanese choral traditions.
Seven choirs from across this country of islands sang for the roughly 1,800 in the hall. Some of the choirs were backed by the traditional multi-stringed koto, while gongs, reedy flutes and drums paced the others. A quintet of chanting monks, heads shaven, processed through the audience flinging handfuls of confetti on our heads. The music—strong, somber, and ceremonial—was a little stiff for my taste but mother’s milk to the Japanese here.
Then suddenly a bright blue ball bounced onstage, chased by a little Japanese girl. She caught the ball but started bouncing it centerstage and singing a folk tune, then another ball and child came on, then another, and within seconds there were probably 80 kids all with balls bouncing in perfect rhythm and singing four-part harmony. Then somebody pulled out a badminton racquet and started thwacking a birdie across the stage to a new song. More rackets came out and the ball song morphed into a badminton song. Then it was a game of jacks and another song—on and on, a new game producing a new song. A playground in fabulous, slightly harmonized cacophony, the conductor standing in the middle of it as calm as a turtle, only raising his nose now and then to signal the next game. When the last ball got bounced offstage by that girl with the beautiful shining black hair, the place went nuts. Not a bad way to start WCS 2005.