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  • Ariane Todes

Mission possible


A summer festival in Silicon Valley initiates young players into the joys and challenges of chamber music and then sends them out into the world to spread the word. It seems to be working

‘We are excited to share this music with you,’ announces the smartly attired 11-year-old boy from the stage of the Center for Performing Arts at Menlo-Atherton. His colleagues (aged 11 and 13) from the Young Performers Program of the Chamber Music Institute have just illuminated some of the historic and folk music context to Alexander Alyabyev’s Piano Trio in A minor.

At first I’m taken aback by their aplomb. By the end of the concert, featuring 28 musicians ranging in age from 11 to 18, each of whom articulates something special about the work they’re about to play, I’m in awe and have learnt some fascinating context. And by the end of my week at Music@Menlo, I understand not only how integral these introductions are to the concerts, but also how they fit into the world view of the festival’s founders and Artistic Directors, pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel.

This world view places chamber music at its epicentre (hardly surprising for the former cellist of the Emerson Quartet) and defies any doom-laden notions that classical music is dying or can appeal only to an elite. It challenges its young musicians to fight for the form, and not only through good communication and administration, but also artistic aspiration.

It’s easy for a hardened music journalist (an English one, at that) to be cynical about such things. But after a week in the presence of the force field that is Wu Han and Finckel (together, one of classical music radio station WQXR’s five ‘power couples’), hearing some fine performances from faculty and students, watching masterclasses, talking to audience and faculty members and seeing the gleam in the eyes of the students, it’s hard to maintain my scepticism.

This summer, Music@Menlo celebrated its 16th season (13 July–4 August). Since it began in 2003 it has made its home at Menlo School, an independent preparatory school in Atherton, California, just south of San Francisco. Within 20 minutes from Google, Tesla and Facebook, it’s also the most expensive zip code in the US. Many concerts take place in the school’s palatial Stent Hall, once the home Leon Douglass, a tech entrepreneur of the last century, who ran Victor Talking Machine Company, which created the ‘Victrola’. Classes take place around the campus, with students criss-crossing the spacious lawn between sessions. The sun seemingly always shines, and the grass is forever green (it’s plastic).

Parallel to the Young Performers Program (for ‘YPs’), the Chamber Music Institute runs the International Program, for conservatoire students aged 18–29. This year’s eleven ‘IPs’ came from America, Korea, China and Uzbekistan, having studied at Juilliard, Curtis, Yale, Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, Shanghai Conservatory, Royal College of Music and New England Conservatory, among other places, with a clutch of competition prizes from around the world between them.

‘If you can make it here you can make it anywhere, because it gives you that first glimpse of the level of the preparation that is needed’

Both programmes are intense. In a standard day, participants have two rehearsals and a masterclass, and will either go to or play in a concert in the evening, as well as doing private practice. IPs each perform around six pieces over three weeks. The workload is part of the training, as Wu Han explains: ‘It’s a professional environment. When I get booked, I know I have two or three rehearsals and then I’m on stage. I have the same expectations of the IP kids. If you can make it here you can make it anywhere, because it gives you that first glimpse of the level of the preparation that is needed when you walk into a professional situation.’

So there are concerts galore. The main series this year was themed around ‘Creative Capitals’, with broad-ranging repertoire focused on London, Paris, St Petersburg and other cities. Faculty members curated their own programmes in the ‘Carte Blanche Concerts’ and appeared in the new format of ‘Prelude Performances’, playing alongside IPs. There were also public masterclasses, conversations and lectures. All the performances I went to were full and the faces (and mainly white hair, admittedly) became familiar – a loyalty and enthusiasm also evidenced in the list of generous patrons.

‘There are no cutesy ways with the little kids or reverential ways with the older artists’

Participants attend all the concerts, too. Dmitri Atapine, a cellist who came to Menlo as a student in 2008 and is now on faculty explains this ethos: ‘There are no cutesy ways with the little kids or reverential ways with the older artists. Wu Han and David truly believe in this immersive experience where an 80-year-old artist attends all the concerts by the little kids and the kids get coaching from top chamber musicians. There’s no separation in the quality that is expected of them. The kids are treated just as professionally as the older students and as the senior artists.’

For many participants, Music@Menlo offers an initiation into chamber music, which is still under-represented in many conservatoires, from which many students still graduate thinking they can live off concertos. It was a revelation for Chamber Music Institute Director Gloria Chien when she attended as an IP 12 years ago: ‘I was playing piano in my life but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. When I came here I fell in love with chamber music and decided to pursue it after the festival, and tried to find ways to get more of it into my real life. I lived in Tennessee and started a series there. It took my life in a completely different direction and my life is now filled with chamber music gigs, festivals and series.’

‘The educational value of chamber music hits so many aspects of human life, regardless of whether you’re going to become professional’

Atapine explains the importance of chamber music: ‘The educational value of chamber music hits so many aspects of human life, regardless of whether you’re going to become professional: how to be a leader without imposing yourself on the group, how to collaborate, be ready, show up on time, be respectful, ask for things nicely – all these little things from which we can learn to become better citizens.

For Wu Han, it also offers practical ways of teaching handing on musical values: ‘Chamber music is so intimate that it’s the easiest way to pass down from generation to generation a way of living, the way of approaching music, the philosophy.’ Sometimes there are conflicts between these philosophies, but that is an important part of the process, as Arnaud Sussmann, Associate Director of the Chamber Music Institute International Program, explains: ‘The groups get many different opinions. I make sure to tell them that they should be respectful to their coaches and try what they’ve said, because we have more experience, but at the end of the day they are the artists and they will be making the decision.’

‘The younger generation has to be the foot soldiers – to speak and convey why they’re passionate about music’

Learning to talk before a performance is part of the skillset they learn, and for Wu Han it’s essential: ‘In the US, music education in schools is so behind that the general audience has less knowledge. The younger generation has to be the foot soldiers – to convey why they’re passionate about music. They should develop that skill from a young age. Even if they don’t become musicians, they can use public-speaking skills in any profession. The thinking, crafting of the message, analytical ability, organisational skill and the act of preparation are important. They start to think, “How can we make our announcement more engaging?” We try to guide them. We tell them, “Don’t make it dry. Find something personal.”’

‘Your first job is to be a real musician. Don’t get distracted by all this other stuff. You can publicise the hell out of yourself, but are you really worth it at the end of the day?’

Finckel admits that it’s hard for performers to navigate these days: ‘In the old days musicians used to have managers and record companies to do their promotion. Now, they have to do their own and many get so fixated on their own promotion on social media, doing things that are trendy and attract attention, that they forget to learn music. Musicians should be artists; they should be pure of thought and mono-directional in their dedication. We’re very concentrated on music and this incredible art form and that’s something we try to impart. Your first job is to be a real musician. Don’t get distracted by all this other stuff. You can publicise the hell out of yourself, but are you really worth it at the end of the day? It’s hard for them. It’s a confusing time.’

‘No one ever complains that Shakespeare is hard to understand: they say it’s a great art form so let’s spend more time to understand it so we can appreciate the beauty’

I foolhardily raise the possibility of the decline of classical music, to which Wu Han reacts vehemently: ‘I’m sorry, but from what I’m seeing, there is no decline. I’m presenting spectacular concerts and people turn up. If everyone can do that, there will be an explosion. If there’s a decline, it’s from people who subconsciously don’t have love and faith in this art from, and think they can compensate with fluffy marketing. People see right through it. I tell the kids: whoever has a sustaining career has it because they’ve dedicated their life to the art form without compromising. The others will come and go, and that’s fine. We have to serve the music, to bring the audience into the music that we believe in so much. There’s nothing to apologise for. No one ever complains that Shakespeare is hard to understand: they say it’s a great art form so let’s spend more time to understand it so we can appreciate the beauty. But you have to work on it.’

Finckel agrees: ‘We don’t run around worrying about whether this music is relevant or not. We don’t have time. Of course it’s relevant. We just do it. We ignore whatever we don’t like in the outside world and do what we think is right. You have to lead by example. The only thing we can do is create the environment where this is the accepted norm. We live it.’

As part of this environment, morning sessions that are closed to the public range across inspirational subjects – singing Bach Chorales, stretching, understanding how to use their bodies, listening to recordings. Finckel says: ‘We force feed them the finest examples of playing that we can put our hands on, because young musicians today don’t listen to great recordings as we did when I was a student, despite YouTube. On YouTube the playing field is level – everything is billed the same. Anyone can put anything up. There’s no editorial, so they can listen to junk. It takes editorial experience.’

Apart from these classes, the audience is part of the knowledge-sharing, through the conversations (subjects including Robert Mann, Leopold Auer and life in a string quartet) and masterclasses (with Paul Neubauer, David Requiro, Bella Hristova and Gilbert Kalish among others). They’re even allowed to listen to rehearsals, which offer fascinating and intimate insights. Wu Han explains this founding ethos: ‘It was to create an environment in the belief that if you know more, you enjoy more. It’s fun being curious. It doesn’t matter if you’re a musician. The programme is designed so that the audience can learn and be engaged.’

‘If you’re doing the right thing, with commitment, people follow you’

Of course it takes more than idealism and fresh air to run a festival, but Wu Han and Finckel have form. Since 2004, they have run the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, which now has spin-offs all round Europe and the US, as well as Korea and Taiwan, and subscriptions that defy demise. Music@Menlo, too, remains in the black – enviably for a summer festival. Wu Han makes it sound simple: ‘If you’re doing the right thing, with commitment, people follow you. The audience understands the mission of the festival. The budget is around $2m and we have to raise every penny of it. We’ve never gone into the red. That takes a tremendous amount of discipline and a great business team.’

Surely, having a festival in one of the most expensive zip codes helps? Certainly not, Wu Han replies: ‘At first I believed the area was special, but it’s the same in New York – feverish devotion. It’s not the area. It’s what you do; how people encounter you, knowing your priority, sensing your passion and understanding the artistic excellence.’

‘They view us all as future administrators. They’re trying to teach us not only how to perform on stage but also how we’re going to continue the development of classical music’

The mission and its realisation are inseparable – which makes the pair relatively rare among classical musicians, who often prefer to keep their heads in the clouds. According to Sussmann, their subtext goes beyond artistic inspiration: ‘This place isn’t only about learning how to play Brahms and Beethoven. They view us all as future administrators. They’re trying to teach us not only how to perform on stage but also how we’re going to continue the development of classical music and chamber music wherever we end up. That’s different from anywhere else.’

That lesson is not only for musicians. Since the beginning, the festival has had an accompanying Arts Management Internship Program, through which a team of interns learns what goes into the organisation of a music festival. Previous ones have gone on to work at Carnegie Hall, San Francisco Symphony and New York Philharmonic.

‘Do we sound like we’re part of a cult or something?’ jokes Sussmann. Well, maybe. After one of the evening concerts, we all sit down to a meal under the stars, and Wu Han gives a speech, Henry the Fifth-like in its passion and call to action. She demands two promises from the IPs: firstly, that they spend time coaching the YPs who are their mentees; secondly, she entreats them that when they go back home, they will take the mission into their own communities. A map of more than 20 international festivals that have been inspired by Music@Menlo shows an impressive conversion rate so far.

As I look at the young faces staring up at her, eyes blazing as they imagine their futures, I believe they will. Halls in towns, villages and cities across the world will be filled with audiences discovering the beauty, depth and intimacy of chamber music for the first time. Musicians will be busy and fulfilled. If this is a cult, sign me up.

All photos: Geoff Sheil

This was amended on 23 August to correct the name of Leon Douglass’s company to ‘Victor Talking Machine Company’

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