'Twas a suspenseful program Sunday night at the Music@Menlo festival -- all about stories and the way in which music can get inside the drama to elevate the tale. And where did it begin? That's a cue: Shower scene, please; Slash! Slash! Slash!
Correct, as in Hitchcock. Bernard Herrmann's menacing "Psycho" Suite, adapted from his score for the 1960 thriller, was the starting point for Sunday's program at the Center for Performing Arts at Menlo-Atherton High School. And there's more to the piece than those shrieking minor/major seventh chords, which sliced like glass shards at Sunday's performance by a nonet of strings.
Herrmann's palette draws on the Second Viennese School, swelling with dark melody in the manner of Schoenberg's "Verklärte Nacht": at the crossroads of late Romanticism and Expressionism. It also works quietly, at the edges of sound, with ghost-shivers of strings and many shades of grimmest foreboding. During a quiet stretch, I suddenly could hear my wristwatch ticking. Help!
The festival played musical chairs throughout this program. The nine "Psycho" participants included a couple of powerhouse violists (Geraldine Walther and Paul Neubauer) , a pair of young violinists from the excellent Escher String Quartet (Adam Barnett-Hart and Wu Jie), as well as Scott Pingel, the San Francisco Symphony's principal bassist.
"Psycho" also included violinists Sean Lee and Kristin Lee (not related), who joined
Perhaps you remember the story of wealthy Prince Prospero whose dominions are devastated by a terrible form of plague. Flaunting the inevitable, believing he can elude the spreading sickness, he throws a masked ball in a secluded abbey for a crowd of his friends. There are clowns and musicians. There is a great deal of wine. And then comes the knock at the door, the arrival of a mysterious stranger -- and you know what happens in the end.
Caplet was a friend and colleague of Debussy. So while this piece, like "Psycho," relates a disturbing tale, it's filled with more light than shadow. It's awash with Impressionist color. It swoons with Impressionist heat.
When the dancing at the ball is depicted, we hear a waltz, filled with glinting colors, as if viewed through stained glass. Even after the stranger's arrival -- Kibbey knocked on her harp's wooden frame -- the piece retains its sheer beauty. Sunday, in the final suspense-filled moments, the harpist seemed to be gathering up baskets of opulent sound, bundles of arpeggios, floating them out into the concert hall.
Next: "It tramonto," from 1914, Ottorino Respighi's setting for mezzo-soprano and string quartet of Percy Bysshe Shelley's "The Sunset," in an Italian translation. The poem relates the tale of two lovers, and how they came to know "the unreserve of mingled being." (Now there's a euphemism of the Romantic era.) The young man dies, but the woman lives on, nurturing the memory of their love into old age.
Featuring mezzo-soprano Susan Mentzer, Sunday's performance threw longer and longer shadows; it was so easy to imagine the narrator in her final years. The intertwining voices of the quartet -- violinists Jorja Fleezanis and Sean Lee; violist Walther; cellist Dmitri Atapine -- wrapped around the singer, a natural dramatist whose voice grew dusky and dolorous. Especially when shadowed by Atapine, a cellist with an enormous chestnut tone, she plumbed Respighi's aria-like themes.
Maybe I was just over-saturated by all this drama, but after intermission, Stravinsky's "L'histoire du soldat" ("The Soldier's Tale") seemed to lack some of its requisite snap. In true Menlo fashion -- no skimping allowed -- the decision had been made to perform the piece in its original, unedited form, all 65 minutes of the soldier Joseph's "history." It does go on a bit, all the ins and outs of his tragic-comic battle of wits with the devil, which he ultimately loses.
This extended parable needed a conductor, some sort of leader to maintain the pacing, which dragged as the narrator (Kay Kostopoulos) and two actors (Max Rosenak, as the soldier; James Carpenter, as the devil) made their way through one vignette and then the next. At each juncture, as directed by Stravinsky, they would pause to allow the band to play; I found myself wanting to hear more band and less talk in this workshoppy performance.
The musicians were terrific, though, playing Stravinsky's unforgettable collection of marches and Russian folk tunes. There's also a jazz number, a wobbly ragtime number, a tango, a waltz, a Lutheran chorale. All of this is pared down, but tricky to execute, given Stravinsky's penchant for strange syncopations and somersaulting melodic figures.
No problem for clarinetist Romie de Guise-Langlois or bassoonist Marc Goldberg; for trumpeter David Washburn or trombonist Timothy Higgins; for violinist Fleezanis or bassist Pingel; or for rocking percussionist Chistopher Froh. These virtuosos played this devilishly difficult music with pizzazz.
Contact Richard Scheinin at 408-920-5069.
Through: Aug. 11
Next performance: 8 p.m. Aug. 1, with pianists Gilbert Kalish, Wu Han and Gloria Chien; violinists Jorja Fleezanis and Ian Swensen; violist Geraldine Walther; cellist David Finckel; harpist Bridget Kibbey; flutist Carol Wincenc and others
Where: Center for Performing Arts, Menlo-Atherton High School, 555 Middlefield Road, Atherton
Tickets: $55-$65, $20-$30 students, 650-331-0202, www.musicatmenlo.org