Review: SCHUBERT'S END-OF-LIFE CELEBRATION BRINGS MUSIC@MENLO TO A COMPELLING CLOSE
By Elijah Ho
Silicon Valley is the land of youthful ambition, where creativity abounds and the median age at most top tech-companies is between 28 and 32. Franz Schubert died at 31, the current age of father-to-be Mark Zuckerberg, and while Facebook celebrates its 12th year in February, Schubert's effect on the musical landscape is quickly approaching 200.
Saturday evening at the Center for Performing Arts at Menlo-Atherton, Silicon Valley's premiere summer music festival, Music@Menlo, offered its seventh and final program of the season, celebrating the tempestuous, closing chapter of the Viennese master's life.
The festival makes a point of looking to the next generation of artists, engaging the stars of tomorrow, grooming even younger ones in Prelude Performances. The Dover Quartet, which made its festival debut two nights earlier in Beethoven's Op. 135, is one such example.
Formed at the Curtis Institute in 2009 when its members were just 19, the quartet began Saturday night with Haydn, whose grave Schubert, in his dying days, walked 35 miles to visit. The String Quartet in D minor, Op. 103, came across with brilliance, élan and some of the most agreeable gradations of tone we've heard in months. But this was a mere taste of what was to come.
Beethoven believed the String Quartet in C-sharp minor, Op. 131, to be his greatest. It was also the last music Schubert requested to hear on his deathbed. The Dover, 2013 winners of the prestigious Banff International competition, had their artistic powers and maturity put to the test. They delivered with conviction. One senses a natural breathing to their phrasing, a nod to the security of their individual technique. The colors they produce are felt, as are the moments of calculated, suspended silence, often as meaningful as the very notes themselves.
Benjamin Britten believed the last 18 months of Schubert's life were "the greatest 18 months in music history," and four songs from his last year,1828, were the vocal elements of the program. Baritone Nikolay Borchev gave a stilted performance of "Auf dem Strom" before finding his way in "Der Doppelganger" from the "Schwanengesang" (Swan Song) cycle, where a somber mood prevailed through the darker hues of his tone, adding a punch of drama at "Der Mond zeigt mir meine eigne Gesalt!" (The moon shows me my own form!).
And of course, there was Joelle Harvey. A soprano of uncommon talent and ample means, she sang "Der Hirt auf dem Felsen," accompanied beautifully by Jose Gonzalez Granero on clarinet and Wu Han at the piano. It was the kind of singing that goes straight to the heart. The showstopper projected the mood of the evening, communicating with resonant, floating lines and resplendent tone.
The late pianist Arthur Rubinstein said of the Adagio from Schubert's Cello Quintet in C major, "This music has always sounded to me like a serene and resigned entrance to death. I have always wished to hear this movement, even on a record, in my own last hour," The festival concluded with a full rendering of what many consider one of the most perfectly written chamber pieces in the classical canon, performed by five artists on Music@Menlo's Chamber Music Institute faculty.
Benjamin Beilman impresses on his fiddle, and violinist Arnaud Sussmann's phrasing is just, natural, and made with grace. But it is the experience and cohesive freedom of violist Paul Neubauer, cellists Laurence Lesser and Keith Robinson, that explain why the young have much to learn about the secrets of legitimate music-making. Theirs was a communication, a communion that extended beyond matters of technique and musical rightness. This was not Schubert dying of syphilis in 1828. This was the Schubert of hope, a celebration of everlasting youth.