A Rare Sighting

The t-shirts that the Menlo Festival are selling this year proclaim “Beethoven: Center of Gravity,” but there are many musicians who might agree with this change: “Da-Hong Seetoo: Center of Gravity.” Da-Hong is the recording producer for the Music at Menlo festival, a man who has more talents than any one person should have. A Curtis and Juilliard trained violinist, Da-Hong is also the Grammy-winning engineer for the Emerson Quartet. While at Menlo, Da-Hong lives in the nursery at St. Mark’s Church (the site of most concerts), working with each ensemble’s rehearsals during the day, recording the concerts each evening and in between doing the final editing and production in preparation for the radio broadcasts and future Menlo compact discs. He’s a critical part of the Menlo team as any one of the festival musicians will tell you, but the audience never sees him.

Until tonight. On the penultimate night of the Festival the Emerson String Quartet took the stage to perform Beethoven’s final and most challenging quartets

Into Eternity

Booking the artists for a festival has got to be one of the joys of putting a festival together. Menlo Artistic Directors David Finckel and Wu Han had one of their more inspired moments this past winter when they invited pianist Claude Frank to come this year to play Beethoven’s final sonata. Claude is a "musician’s musician"…that is, he is one of those musicians that other musicians carve time out of their schedules to come and hear. He’s also been a teacher to many, many students. In fact, when Wu Han welcomed everyone tonight she talked about the influence that Claude and his late wife Lillian had on her own professional and personal development. "Not only did they teach me how to play piano, but they also taught me about life…about being generous, honest and working hard."

(I’ve been fortunate enough to know Claude since he came to our MPR studios in 1984 for a Saint Paul Sunday session with the Sequoia Quartet. He’s come back several times over the years and always moved us with the qualities Wu Han mentioned plus an unusual and sincere modesty about his work. As we’re preparing for our 25th anniversary next year, Claude is on our "favorites" list and we’re looking forward to welcoming him back to the studio this fall.)

Beethoven’s final sonata is a journey and can take you to unexpected places. I thought I was prepared for this when I sat down in the audience tonight, but I wasn’t really. Claude came out to thunderous applause, sat down at the piano and stole our hearts. It truly was as if time stopped. Claude must have performed this work hundreds of times over his career, but this evening it was completely original and unique. It was a performance that reminded us all of how painful and yet how glorious it is to be human. When it was over, I heard one person quietly say "oh how beautiful" and then the applause began.

Claude’s daughter Pamela was in the back of the room and in the midst of the applause said to me, "I can’t believe I’m related to him. Even if I wasn’t he’d still be my hero." Is there any higher praise that that?

Unbelievably, there was more music after intermission. The St. Lawrence Quartet came out on stage with David Finckel to perform Schubert’s gorgeous cello quintet. Oddly, it took them several minutes to start the piece and I had the impression that they almost didn’t want to add anything to a perfect night. But then the 2 violinists raised their bows and played the sweetest and most tender entrance notes in clear tribute to the Beethoven just concluded.

From Menlo—Buckle your seatbelts, it's late Beethoven

I try and take a Zen approach to flying: it doesn’t matter what time you land, as long as it’s a safe landing. But I had trouble with that mindset yesterday as I cooled my heels in the Minneapolis airport for 3 hours waiting for my San Francisco flight to take off. As the hours ticked by, it looked like I might miss my first night of Beethoven at the Music @ Menlo Festival.

Well, the chamber music gods smiled on me and I arrived in town with about 50 minutes to spare and, as has been the case for the previous two years, it was well worth the effort. Wu Han came bounding up on the stage at the start of the concert to announce an "amazing" line up of events for the following day: a Café Conversation by Master Teacher Pamela Frank, a Master Class by violinist Jorja Fleezanis and a special Encounter lecture on Beethoven’s final piano sonata in preparation for the performance this evening. Then she warmly welcomed the St. Lawrence Quartet to the stage.

The music that Beethoven wrote in his final years is not always easy listening. It takes strange turns and can even sound contemporary at times. But this audience sat motionless last night through the first two of his late quartets opening their hearts to where this quartet might take them.

Additional notes: Violinist Geoff Nuttall and cellist Christopher Costanza were sporting shaved heads which audience members around me informed me were less than 24 hours old. A television crew is following them around and they had their own "reality TV" moment with the razor.

Menlo is more than sold out each night. Overheard at a reception last night: "People are pretending to be handicapped just to get a seat. I swear that woman didn’t need her walker once she got her ticket!"

Day 8 in Kyoto

A music festival is just like any other human endeavor in that there are hits, misses, and a surprise or two. Here’s the tally sheet as the Symposium closed today.

HITS:

Choir singing has its longest and richest history in the English-speaking and Nordic countries. No wonder then that these areas sent us the week’s best overall groups. The Americans (youth choirs from San Francisco and New York City and a really good college group from the University of Louisville) did us proud. But for sheer perfection, first prize goes to the Norwegians. At the end of the Symposium, people are still talking about the Oslo Chamber Choir and the haunting tunes from the fjords they concocted a week ago!

MISSES:

The final afternoon concert today was an absolute bust. Two of the three choirs were fine—we’re going to skip names here—but the third… As my mother would say: Oh my. At one point in a particular piece it seemed as if the whole thing was going to fly apart. The choir was spinning off vital hardware left and right. There goes rhythm, now pitch—oops, now it’s ensemble. It was like watching your worst performance-anxiety dream unfold right there onstage, the one where you forgot to come to the rehearsals and the wrong music’s in your folder. The only thing missing was the inevitable I’m naked fiasco. Two thousand people, who can sit breathlessly still if they want to, coughed and squirmed and gave a damningly polite golf clap and the choir fled the stage.

SURPRISES:

If you love choral music, two new names to watch, one way to the north and one WAY to the south. The first is the Winnipeg Singers. Their program of nine pieces was all contemporary Canadian music and I put a star by each. The Singers had gorgeous voices and power to rock you back in your seat, but then they could rein it all in and sotto voce the sweetest tune to make you lean forward and not miss a note. Their conductor, Yuri Klaz, is a recent Russian immigrant and took over the choir only two years ago. Up there on the prairie he’s doing something very right.

I took notes on every choir and every piece of music, and as I look back in my Symposium program booklet there’s only one page that has the word “Wow!” written across the top. No one knew—I sure as heck didn’t—that there is any kind of choir tradition in the Philippines. But the San Miguel Master Chorale came onstage last night and blew the doors down. Thirty-eight voices with all the polish and sophistication of the late Dale Warland Singers, but with repertoire and vocal techniques that tap deep Filipino tribal roots. Fabulous odd rhythms, guttural chants, exotic prayer calls—all of this interwoven into the most beautiful bel canto singing a Western ear ever wanted to hear. They’re the nugget of gold I found here in Kyoto and that I’ve dropped in my pocket as I turn and head for home.

Day 7 in Kyoto

Every day during the Symposium, the Kyoto Concert Hall functions as a kind of revolving door for the planet. The two or three groups who perform on the afternoon concert have to hightail it out of their dressing rooms so the next two or three who are on their way to sing the evening concert can change. Singers from wildy disparate cultures brush by each other in the stairwells and hallways and sometimes get a little bit stuck.

Choeur La Grace, from Congo

Yesterday, the members of Choeur la Grace from Congo wowed everyone with their fabulous costumes (think a rainbow on steroids) and presentation in which they danced, wept, laughed—all in the first number.

I was chasing them for an interview afterward while the Swedish women’s quartet Schola Gothia was heading for the stage to rehearse their evening program. Gothia’s specialty is austere music by 14th-century mystics, read from a single page of manuscript that’s propped on a six-foot-tall wooden music stand.

La Grace was heading down the stairs, Gothia up. One of the African singers’ costumes snagged on Gothia’s wooden stand. So here was the snapshot capturing the Symposium: a choir of Swedes caught and stopped on a few strands of dried, colored grass from equatorial Africa. I was above them in the stairwell so when I heard the little bubble of laughter float up I looked down and saw two singers, one black, one white, working to untangle the mess. Their heads leaned close to each other: one of long blonde hair, the other of tightknit coffee-colored cornrows. The whole thing took only a second or two and then they each went on their way, two cultures, two eras, caught on each other in a place that neither could have ever predicted.

Day 6 in Japan: Hiroshima

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial The Hiroshima Peace Memorial

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Genbaku Dome) was the only structure left standing in the area where the first atomic bomb exploded on 6 August 1945.

Tired-Eyes Alert: a longer post than usual.

The first sound you hear when you get off the streetcar in central Hiroshima is the cicada. It’s not the same high-pitched squall that rises on Midwestern August afternoons, but a lower, more mechanical sound. Walking under just one tree gives you the impression of a scissors-testing convention in full swing, and you’re forgiven the upward glance to check if one of those little buggers has a bead on you. Magnify that sound a thousand times for all the trees that line the paths of Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park, and this is your unnerving welcome to the site where the U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb 60 years ago this week.

Yesterday was a day off from choir singing. Funny, we flock from all over the world to the Symposium wanting to be moved by the sound of the human voice singing with other human voices. And we’ve gotten it in Kyoto. But too much of a good thing… So the organizers make sure to book an off day halfway through each Symposium with no concerts, no workshops, just a chance to rest the ears and look around. I took it as an opportunity to realize a longtime dream and ride one of the famous Shingansen ‘bullet’ trains. It took about an hour and a half to travel the 200 miles between Kyoto and Hiroshima to the southwest.

Hiroshima’s cicadas made doubly sure I left the Symposium far behind: their sound doesn’t so much enter the ear as press against your forehead. But a second sound stamped the experience even harder. It came no more than a minute after I’d gotten to the Peace Park. I’d started to read the sign—At exactly 8:15 a.m., August 6, 1945, 70,000-80,000 people instantly…—and was suddenly aware that I wouldn’t have the first idea of what to say if a Japanese stopped me and asked me to answer for the atom bomb. What was I doing here? But right then there was a crash of metal on metal back on the street I’d just crossed, then a shatter of glass. I looked back and a motorcycle rider lay crumpled by a shiny black bike, facedown on the street, his headlight in pieces in front of him.

This is one of those moments I used to fantasize about in grade school. I will be heroic. I will know the thing to do. I will leap to it. I just stood there. Dumb as a pigeon, the guy only a few yards away from me, no clue what to do.

The driver got her car off the street and came running. I looked at all the other people standing next to me staring at this poor guy. They’ll know what to do. They’ll help. They live here. They speak Japanese. Nobody moved.

I’m not sure what happened in the next minute but I found myself kneeling over the guy, my only thought that I wished I’d heeded my wife’s sage travel advice: Always carry a packet of Kleenex. The driver helped the rider sit up but neither of us had a thing to staunch the blood that began to seep steadily from his nose and mouth. He spat and teeth skittered onto the pavement.

Cars began to swerve around us and right then by any measure I failed my sixth-grade fantasy: I timidly cupped my hand under the man’s elbow as the car driver helped him to the sidewalk where he plunked down again, head in hands. Finally, finally, there was a guy hollering into a cellphone for an ambulance. The bike was still on the street. This situation didn’t seem likely to improve any if the bike stayed there, so I righted it and rolled it onto the sidewalk, parking it next to its owner. That was all I did.

But an old woman, I imagine the driver’s mother who’d also been in the car, came right up to me and let fly with a flurry of Japanese. I have no idea what she said, but she ended in a deep bow. Her daughter now held a bloody cloth to the biker’s face and I made some lame motion toward her daughter that I hoped indicated that she was the only one doing any good here. But her mother fixed me with a stare and bowed, this time practically to her knees, her hands in the traditional Japanese posture of thanks but which to us looks like prayer.

While over her shoulder stood the remnants of the building they now call the Atomic Bomb Dome. It survived the 1945 blast that otherwise flattened everything else for a mile. Hiroshimans debated for decades whether to leave its skeletal remains as is or raze it, finally deciding that it could do more good right there. Now it’s an icon. And any American who looks on this thing and does not have it sear into the back of the eye better check for a pulse.

There this old woman stood, still bowed deeply in front of me, that bombed-out building right behind her. I’ve picked up only a smatter of Japanese words this week, nothing that could begin to convey, “Listen, my people incinerated 80,000 of your people in a flash on this very spot. Don’t bow. Not to me.” Instead I felt my cheeks turn red. I bowed ever so slightly to her, hurried off and back into the park.

But the cicadas and their scissors were still working hard there, their sound mingling now with an approaching siren—and none of this giving any quarter to an American a long way from home.