One of the most encouraging trends in classical music these days has been the rise of the multimedia concert event. Whether it's Video Games Live, Pictures at an Exhibition with newly commissioned art, or John Adams's El Niño with dancers and projections, it seems as though everyone is recognizing that modern audiences need not only to be immersed in the event, but to know more about it. So it's refreshing to see an entire festival based on the principle that there's more to the music than meets the ear. For the last seven years Music@Menlo has invited world-class musicians, artists and teachers to the South Bay for a yearly festival that looks at its theme from multiple angles, in multiple media. This year's theme is Maps and Legends, running July 23 through August 14, 2010, with concerts, classes and conversations covering everything from 18th century Venice to fin-de-siècle Paris to the devastation of post-World War II Germany.
Music@Menlo was founded in 2003 by David Finckel, the cellist of the Grammy-Award-winning Emerson String Quartet, and his wife, pianist Wu Han, who had already established themselves as pioneers with their owned-and-operated web-based recording label ArtistLed. Music@Menlo was, in a lot of ways, an excuse to do what they loved best: playing chamber music with their enormously talented friends, talking about what went on behind the music, and sharing their passions with each other, with their students, and with anyone who wanted to sit in (i.e., an audience). What they put together is kind of like one of those language-immersion vacations you can take to another country, only here the "country" is a theme, and the sights to see include a visual artist-in-residence (this year, it's aerial photographer Alex MacLean), public master classes with young musicians-in-training, concerts with conversation on the topic at hand, and the chance to get up close and personal with extraordinary musicians like pianists Jeffrey Kahane and Gilbert Kalish, violinists Jorja Fleezanis and Ian Swensen, guitarist Jason Vieaux, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke and San Francisco Symphony members Scott Pingel and Jonathan Fischer.
The centerpiece of Music@Menlo is always the concert program, but you might learn more from the ancillary events. Maps and Legends includes The Seasons (July 23), The English Voice (July 25-27), Vienna (July 31 ? August 2), Aftermath: 1945 (August 4-5), La Ville-Lumière: Paris, 1920-28 (August 7), Spanish Inspirations (August 9-10), and Dvořák's America (August 13-14). That may be enough of a journey by itself, but there are also multimedia evenings covering London, Vienna and Paris, informal Cafe Conversations with the musicians, and a chance for the guest artists to indulge in their singular passions, from a Schubert song cycle to 200th anniversary concerts of Chopin and Schumann.
But wait, there's more! Finckel and Han are deeply involved in music education, and part of the Festival's mission is the training of young musicians. Hearing chamber music at its best is like watching a hockey or basketball team at the top of its game: outstanding individual performances that amount to more than the sum of their parts. It's a skill that can only be acquired in a group setting, and the Chamber Music Institute offers talented students from junior high school to pre-professional levels the chance to learn together. If my own student experiences are any guide, these young players are going to have the time of their lives.
Music@Menlo runs July 23 through August 14, 2010 with concerts in Atherton, Palo Alto, and Menlo Park, including the new, state-of-the-art Center for the Performing Arts at Menlo-Atherton. From concerts to master classes, exhibitions to encounters, Music@Menlo is a hothouse for listening, learning and experiencing. For tickets and information visit musicatmenlo.org, and find out where Maps and Legends might lead you.