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Menlo Rising

Only in its second year, the [email protected] chamber festival is already a heavyweight

By Scott MacClelland

ALREADY well known for their appearances at Stanford and vicinity, cellist David Finkel and pianist Wu Han gambled that a chamber music festival in Menlo Park would attract and satisfy a summertime appetite in the Bay Area. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation took the same chance on [email protected] by seeding its first season--last year--with a grant of $750,000. Has the gamble paid off? That question was answered in part by Hewlett, which renewed its funding commitment for two more years, through 2005, guaranteeing the same amount against the festival's $850,000 annual budget.

This data was disclosed over lunch Sunday by festival publicist Milina Barry, halfway through [email protected]'s second season at the Menlo School in Atherton, and halfway through a Carte Blanche Concert recital of J.S. Bach's six solo cello suites. Acclaimed cellist Colin Carr had just finished playing three of the suites and would return after the one-hour break to survey the rest of them. During that hour, concertgoers were provided box lunches to eat in a grassy courtyard while Michael Steinberg spoke to them about the music and its historic context.

Before lunch, the small, acoustically bright Spieker Ballroom at the school was packed with about 150 ticket holders and some of the 35 student participants in the festival's education program. Though the majority of the festival's programs are comprised of ensemble chamber music and feature a virtual pantheon of outstanding chamber music specialists, solo and duo recitals are sprinkled in.

This proved not only the exception, but also an outstanding one. Every cellist plays these compelling and fascinating works. But few, including the biggest names in cellodom, take the experience to the level that Carr did here. His suites in G and C showed a sensitive depth of personal character free from affectation or eccentricity, the main shortfalls of other players. But the suite in C minor took a haunting and unforgettable turn as Carr drew from Bach's familiar notes a grim sorrow, at times bitter, grieving, even mocking. The slow one-note-at-a-time saraband was inconsolable while the final gigue flirted dangerously with its own downbeat by an alchemy of magical phrasing.

The Finkel/Wu Han duo have not only birthed a huge artistic success with [email protected], now including its own CDs recorded on the spot and broadcast through Minnesota Public Radio, but have scored another professional coup as the newly chosen music directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. The festival is partly a give-back, they say, for all the opportunities they had during their educations. But it's also born of the shrewd exercise of a rare administrative vision and the money necessary to make possible the launch of what, to all appearances, is a fully mature nonprofit artistic venture. How else to so effectively capture such sizable "seeding" as the Hewlett grants, much less a stable of artists and teachers of the caliber of Elmar Oliveira, Ani Kavafian, Geraldine Walther, Colin Carr, Jeffrey Kahane, Gilbert Kalish, Carol Wincenc, Allan Vogel--to name only a few--plus accomplished students from across the country and abroad.

[email protected] continues Thursday (Aug. 12) with a discussion of Russian composers at 7:30pm at Stent Family Hall in Menlo Park; Friday with a 6pm Prelude Performance and a concert of works by Russian composers, both at St. Mark's Episcopal in Palo Alto; Saturday with a Young Performers Concert at 3pm at Stent and, at 8pm, a repeat of the Russian concert at Stent; Sunday with a 5:30pm presentation at Stent of the Russian concert. Call 650.725.ARTS for schedule and ticket details.

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From the August 11-17, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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