July 18--The 11th season of Music@Menlo, the estimable South Bay chamber festival that begins this weekend, promises a range of programming and musical exploration, from the Baroque period to the present day. But the entire three-week schedule, says cellist David Finckel, has its roots in a single concert from two summers ago.
"The whole idea sprang from a concert during our ninth season," says Finckel, who founded and runs the festival together with his wife, pianist Wu Han. "It began with Larry Lesser playing one of the Bach Cello Suites, and afterward there was music by Schoenberg and Bartok.
"I was in the hall, and it was clear that something was different about that concert -- that beginning with Bach like that had transformed everything else on the program. And that's when we began to think, 'What about a festival where every program began with Bach?' "
The result draws a host of connections from Bach's music to those of his followers, including Mozart, Schumann, Shostakovich, Britten and more. After all, it isn't as though there are any composers who haven't felt Bach's influence.
"It was a very easy festival to program," Finckel says. "I mean, it took work, and we had to struggle to make the programs good, but it all fits together. The threads come out of Bach to keyboard music, string music, even percussion -- all of these ideas came from Bach."
The festival comes at a delicate juncture for Finckel, 61. In May he played his last concert with the Emerson String Quartet, which he left after more than 35 years. (He'll be replaced by cellist Paul Watkins.) It's a move, he says, that inspires great relief.
"I'm relieved for the quartet, because they found one of the great cellists to take my place, and I can see how successful that relationship is going to be, both musically and personally. And I'm relieved for myself because really, I was gasping for breath among all the projects I've taken on."
In addition to Music@Menlo, Finckel and Han also direct the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York and run their own record company, ArtistLed. He teaches at the Juilliard School and Stony Brook University and coaches chamber players at the Aspen Music Festival.
Many of his colleagues from the world of chamber music wind up performing at Music@Menlo, though Finckel says the experience never grows old.
"At the festival, almost every performance is what I call a new production, like a new staging of an opera. You can be playing a piano trio for the umpteenth time, but with new people, it's a new production, and you're going to hear something in there that you'd never heard before."
Finckel and Han continue to plan ahead for future summers, each with its own thematic focus.
"There are still so many lenses through which to look at the chamber music repertoire, and I don't anticipate running out of ways to do this anytime in the near future.
"But I'm not a believer in innovation for innovation's sake -- I'm more interested in deepening the festival experience than expanding it. We never want to find ourselves sitting around scratching our heads and thinking, 'What can we come up with this year that's new?' "
Music@Menlo: 8 p.m. Friday, 6 p.m. Sunday. Through Aug. 10; check website for full schedule. $20-$77. Center for the Performing Arts at Menlo-Atherton, 555 Middlefield Road, Atherton. (650) 330-2030. www.musicatmenlo.org.
Joshua Kosman is The San Francisco Chronicle's music critic. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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