Come summer, classical music's heavy hitters -- the San Francisco Symphony and San Francisco Opera -- fold up shop. By early July, their seasons have ended, and it seems as if the region's classical music and opera scenes are going to sleep.

But not really. In fact, summertime is in many ways the right time to dip into the area's classical offerings. It's festival time all over the place: Music@Menlo on the Peninsula (July 18-Aug. 10); the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in Santa Cruz and San Juan Bautista (Aug. 2-11); and the Midsummer Mozart Festival in Santa Clara, Berkeley, Sonoma and San Francisco (July 18-28).

Photographer: R.R. Jones.Pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet (left) and conductor Marin Alsop at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, after Friday’s performance
Photographer: R.R. Jones. Pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet (left) and conductor Marin Alsop at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, after Friday's performance of James MacMillan's Piano Concerto No. 3, "The Mysteries of Light," at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music.

These are top-shelf events; music lovers often travel distances to attend. One important reason is that they are so intimately scaled: Menlo and Cabrillo, in particular, allow listeners not only to get up close to world-class musicians, but to get to know them, schmooze with them, watch them in open rehearsals. It's great for aficionados, and for newcomers to the music, too. At summer classical festivals, the walls between performers and listeners come tumbling down.

Music@Menlo


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Headquartered on the shady, green grounds of Menlo-Atherton High School in Atherton, this chamber-music festival has been a godsend to the Bay Area, which is known as a national hotbed for small-ensemble performances. Yet, strangely, the region's summer chamber scene had been largely dormant until Wu Han (a celebrated pianist) and husband, cellist David Finckel (best known for his 34 years with the Emerson String Quartet), founded this festival in 2002. It didn't take long for a devoted following to emerge around the charged mix of concerts, multimedia lectures and free daily recitals by the super-talented young musicians at the festival's summer institute.

This listener counts many memories: a 2003 performance by Wu Han and the St. Lawrence String Quartet of Dvorak's A major piano quintet, played with such passion that you almost expected the musicians to get up and smash their instruments, like the Who; British cellist Colin Carr's bracing traversal of all six Bach Cello Suites in a single 2004 recital; mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke's performance of Benjamin Britten songs in 2010, with its enfolding warmth and power; and numerous appearances by clarinetist Anthony McGill, a commanding player with a mysteriously beautiful sound, who first appeared at Menlo when he was just 26.



This year's performers include the Danish String Quartet -- young spikey-haired renegades, making their debut -- as well as esteemed pianists Gilbert Kalish and Jeffrey Kahane, not to mention dozens of other instrumentalists. One will be Carr, revisiting a couple of those suites.

In the end, something intangible pervades Menlo and sets it apart. There's a shared sense of celebration; you feel the expectancy of listeners and players, both. Only the music matters. "It's kept me sane," Finckel says.

Cabrillo Festival

A similar sense of ease and celebration is to be found at Cabrillo, where fans mingle with composers and members of the festival orchestra. In 2006, during an afternoon rehearsal break at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, violinist Leila Josefowicz stood around with composer John Adams, conferring over a future collaboration and the six-string electric violin required to make it happen. Curious music fans surrounded them, listening in on a working conversation between a major virtuoso and one of the world's leading composers (whose "The Dharma at Big Sur" is a concerto for electric violin).

David Shifrin, clarinet; Jon Kimura Parker, piano. Menlo-Atheron Performing Arts Center. August 8, 2011. Photo Credit: Ashley Pinnell
David Shifrin, clarinet; Jon Kimura Parker, piano. Menlo-Atheron Performing Arts Center. August 8, 2011. Photo Credit: Ashley Pinnell ( Ashley Pinnell )

It's the sort of thing that happens a lot at Cabrillo, a showcase for contemporary orchestral music. Over the past two decades, this event has become closely identified with its music director, Marin Alsop, a globe-trotting conductor, who has come to regard Santa Cruz as a second home. Due to a hand injury suffered early this month when she slipped and fell on a wet bathroom floor, she won't attend this year's festival. But conductors Carolyn Kuan and Brad Lubman -- able replacements, both known for their handling of new music -- will step in to lead performances of works by Philip Glass, Derek Bermel, Kevin Puts, Christopher Rouse, Enrico Chapela (his "Magnetar" is a concerto for electric cello), Magnus Lindberg, Anna Clyne, George Walker and others, including film composer Thomas Newman, whose "It Got Dark" will feature the Kronos Quartet as soloists.

Quick story: In 2011, festival fan and donor Bette Hirsch went to executive director Ellen Primack with an idea -- that Cabrillo should secretly commission composer Kevin Puts to write a piece honoring her husband Joe's 75th birthday in 2013. Around the same time, Joe privately asked Primack if Puts might do the same for Bette in 2013, to mark the couple's 35th wedding anniversary. Not knowing how to handle the two secret requests, Primack mentioned them to Alsop, who mentioned them to Puts, a Pulitzer Prize winner who loves the Hirsches (they met at Cabrillo in 2002). He went to work. His new Flute Concerto -- Bette used to play the flute -- honors both of them and is the centerpiece of this year's opening night concert, Aug. 2.

Midsummer Mozart Festival

Now going on 40 years old, it is a labor of love for conductor George Cleve, who was born in Vienna and whose middle name is Wolfgang. Mozart is mother's milk to Cleve, whose father was a Viennese violinist and whose Aunt Fanny sang under the direction of Richard Strauss and Otto Klemperer. From his youth, Cleve has said, he was "plunged into Mozart," and his festival programs reflect that fact. He conducts his favorite music with absolutely no fuss -- just fondness and understanding.

He and his cherry-picked orchestra have evolved a tongue-in-groove relationship. A 2007 performance of Mozart's Symphony No. 34 balanced storm and tranquillity; it all emerged ego-free. A 2008 offering of Mozart's Piano Concerto in C minor, featuring pianist Nikolai Demidenko, was a thing of confident beauty.

Cleve has a way of finding terrific under-the-radar Mozart players; in recent years, they also have included pianist Janina Fialkowska and (from the ranks of the orchestra) bassoonist Rufus Olivier and oboist Laura Griffiths. This year's programs include soprano Rebecca Davis, a shimmery and technically accomplished singer, and teenage pianist Audrey Vardanega, whose past festival performances have artfully played with shadow and light. Now, go explore.

Contact Richard Scheinin at 408-920-5069, read his stories and reviews at www.mercurynews.com/richard-scheinin and follow him at Twitter.com/richardscheinin.

Music@Menlo chamber music festivaL

When: July 18-Aug. 10
Where: The Menlo School, 50 Valparaiso Ave., Atherton;
Center for Performing Arts at Menlo-Atherton High School,
555 Middlefield Road, Atherton.
Single tickets: $40-$77, $20-$35 ages 29 and younger,
650-331-0202, www.musicatmenlo.org

Cabrillo Festival
of Contemporary Music

When: Aug. 2-11
Where: Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, 307 Church St.; and
Old Mission San Juan Bautista, 406 Second St.
Single tickets: $30-$52, 831-420-5260, www.cabrillomusic.org

Midsummer Mozart Festival

When: July 18-28
Where: Venues in Santa Clara, Berkeley, Sonoma and
San Francisco
Single tickets: $20-$65, 800-838-3006, extension 1;
www.midsummermozart.org