In the jazz world, there's no shortage of talk about musicians' individual voices -- how this saxophonist or that pianist is instantly recognizable on the basis of a single note or chord.
Classical music isn't quite as known for such outright individualism, but it's still there. A good example can be found in clarinetist Anthony McGill, a man with a voice.
The connecting factor in the first two programs of Music@Menlo's 10th anniversary season, McGill has a sound that can spread like a warm, gossamer fog or penetrate like a lance. A Menlo star since the festival's inaugural season in 2003, when he was 23, he offered a rather astonishing Sunday morning recital with pianist Gloria Chien.
Over two short hours in Stent Family Hall on the Menlo School campus in Atherton, he exhibited his full arsenal: dreamtime squiggles of liquid lyricism (Debussy); chest-beating cries of heartache (Scriabin); sounds resembling bird songs and faintest intergalactic radio signals (Messiaen); and a carnival of sunlit technical showmanship out of Romantic literature (Weber).
Worth noting is that McGill -- whose main gig is as principal clarinetist with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra -- is unassuming and good-humored; he makes an audience feel at home. Also worth noting is that McGill, 33, and Chien, 35, illustrate how festival founders Wu Han and David Finckel (who also lead New York's Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center) have groomed a new generation
She is a coat-of-many-colors pianist: Finely blended sound tapestries emerged from her instrument at Sunday's "Carte Blanche" recital, which explored themes of longing and memory, of time outside of time. And she is a close listener; she and McGill were acutely in balance -- no overplaying by either party.
The result was music of floating contemplation, as in Debussy's "Premiere rhapsodie"; or painfully shadowed memories, as in Schumann's "Nicht schnell," one of Three Romances for Clarinet and Piano; or utter exuberance, as in the conclusion to Weber's Grand Duo Concertante in E-flat major. During the finale's most buoyant passages, McGill and Chien seemed to be trading jumps on a trampoline.
Perhaps most moving of all were McGill's solo performances: "Abyss of the Birds," from Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time," and Stravinsky's Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet. These works allowed the clarinetist, with his deft pianissimo effects -- sounds from some quiet internal universe -- to channel a sense of mystical loneliness, a pure despondency that purges, emerging as boiled-down beauty.
At Saturday's festival-opening program in Stent, McGill joined the Pacifica Quartet for Mozart's Clarinet Quintet in A major. What a sweet kiss of a performance: mellifluous, ephemeral, luxuriously fine. During the Minuetto, the five players seemed caught up in a gravity-free dance.
And speaking of a new generation of players: The festival introduced 22-year-old violinist Benjamin Beilman, whose playing was tentative during the slow, suspended opening to Schubert's Fantasy for Violin and Piano in C major. But by the end of the performance with pianist Juho Pohjonen, Beilman was brilliant-toned and breezily declarative.
He later joined Pohjonen and cellist Finckel in a bracing performance of Beethoven's Piano Trio in E-flat major, Op. 70. The players were equally at home with the composer's juicy lyricism and stormy, heroic gestures. During the finale, Finckel gaped at Pohjonen, whose lines were torrential, as if someone had uncapped a fire hydrant.
Through: Aug. 11
Next concert: Sunday at 6 p.m., a repeat of Saturday's opening-night program
Where: Center for Performing Arts, Menlo-Atherton High School, 555 Middlefield Road, Atherton
Tickets: $55-$65 adults, $20-$30 students; 650-331-0202 or www.musicatmenlo.org