After a long and grim winter it is such a joy to see the flowering trees and to be warmed by spring weather. For classical music lovers the season also brings the fabulous annual Mayfest. This highly successful international chamber music festival, sponsored by Cornell’s Department of Music and directed by faculty pianists Xak Bjerken and Miri Yampolsky, is now in its seventh year of presenting a wide variety of remarkable music presented by exceptional musicians. The festival, featuring six programs this year, opens on Saturday, May 17, offers two Sunday concerts with a matinee at 3 p.m., and closes the following Wednesday. All events will be in Barnes Hall, except for Sunday evening’s, which takes place in the Hayloft of the Carriage House Café. Evening concerts start at 8 p.m.
This year’s festival is a homecoming for special friends who by now have become audience favorites. Six visiting string players are returning: violinists Mikhail Kopelman and Xiao-Dong Wang, violists Cynthia Phelps and Guy Ben-Ziony, and cellists Steven Doane and Zvi Plesser. Some have been here several times before. They will be joined by English soprano Ruth Holton and French harpist Florence Sitruk. Performing with them are well-known resident artists including fortepianist Malcolm Bilson and, naturally, Bjerken and Yampolsky, along with violinists Ariana Kim and Nicholas DiEugenio, cellist John Haines-Eitzen, and conductor Chris Younghoon Kim.
According to Bjerken the festival has three major themes: the German strain represented by the Bach family in the one vocal program plus J.S. Bach’s sixth cello suite, plus works by Brahms; the French theme with music mostly by Ravel and Debussy; and three “big, fabulous Russian works.” The programs clearly have been planned to illustrate contrasts and parallels among these strains, and major works are set off with varied and interesting that fit well with the themes. And, in keeping with the festival’s original intent, three new works by Cornell composers will be performed.
When we spoke, Xak Bjerken was excited to have just witnessed the arrival of a “gorgeous” brand-new harp shipped here from France, to be played by Sitruk. So, “of course we have to have French music.” Although not much of it has been done before, this year is different.
The first half of the opening program, for example, is entirely music by Ravel and Debussy. Starting off the festival is an arrangement of two Hebrew melodies from Ravel’s Kaddish, originally written for voice and piano, with Israeli cellist Plesser accompanied by members of the Cornell Chamber Orchestra conducted by Chris Kim. Plesser, on his third visit to Mayfest, has taught at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance since since 1998 and is a founding member of the renowned chamber music group Concertante.
Then Debussy’s Danse sacrée et danse profane for harp and string quartet will be performed by Sitruk, who performs worldwide and is artistic director of the International Harp Contest in Israel. She is joined by violinists DiEugenio from IC and Kim from Cornell, Israeli violist Ben-Ziony who teaches in Leipzig and is Sitruk’s partner, and cellist Haines-Eitzen. The work is delicate and rippling in sound, and ends with a swooping waltz, making a perfect contrast with and transition to Ravel’s La valse, which follows.
This choreographic poem for orchestra will be heard in an adaptation for two pianos by the composer, who managed to create “incredible orchestral color and an enormous amount of sound.” Two of Bjerken’s students, Ryan McCullough and Andrew Zhou (both in the DMA program in Critical Keyboard Studies), will perform.
After intermission comes another contrast, the Brahms Piano Quartet no. 1 in G minor, op. 25, to be played by violinist Xiao-Dong Wang, trained at Shanghai Conservatory and Juilliard and artistic director of Concertante, joined by violist Ben-Ziony, cellist Plesser, and pianist Yampolsky.
The French connection continues in Program III, on Sunday evening at the Carriage House, with a performance by Plesser and Yampolsky of the Cello Sonata, op. 65, by Frédéric Chopin. Then the Ravel Piano Trio will be played by Wang, Plesser, and Bjerken. Bjerken considers it the “best piano trio of the 20th century.”
The following evening’s Program IV opens with three pieces for cello and piano in French salon style by Britten’s teacher Frank Bridge, offered by Doane and Bjerken and followed by the Fantaisie for Violin and Harp, op. 124, a romantic piece by Camille Saint-Saëns played by violinist Kim and harpist Sitruk.
Tuesday evening’s concert provides the final French offering, Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp, with Cornell flutist Juliana May-Pepinski, harpist Sitruk, and violist Phelps, who won a Grammy for her performance of this work.
Most of Program II, to be presented by English soprano Ruth Holton and Cornell fortepianist Malcolm Bilson on Sunday afternoon in Barnes, is devoted to vocal and instrumental music by the north German master, J. S. Bach, and his brilliant and prolific son, Carl Philipp Emmanuel, whose 300th birth anniversary is being celebrated this year.
Bilson told me he received a call from Leipzig about two years ago, asking him to play a recital there with Holton, who performs in festivals all over Europe, including the Bachfest 2000 in Leipzig to celebrate J. S. Bach. And indeed this exact program will be performed on June 16 at the Bachfest 2014. The two musicians had never met, but a fine friendship has developed through phone calls and email exchanges to plan the program. They are meeting for the first time this week.
Holton selected two sets of sacred songs by father and son—Bilson describes them as very serious and pietistic—as well as two longer sacred works by C.P. E., one a dramatic “scena.” The fortepiano solos by the younger Bach—Bilson is playing on Cornell’s Paul McNulty replica of an Anton Walter 5 ½-octave instrument dating ca. 1800—include the Rondo in C minor and a Sonata in G minor, works that are very interesting, “every measure has a surprise.”
Bilson feels that this music highly influenced Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, and helped to make their compositions more serious and substantial. The program will close with a selection of Haydn’s music, two keyboard works including the beautiful Andante et Variazione in F minor (with poignant and chromatic gestures that are reminiscent of the Mozart Rondo in A Minor composed just six years before) and a group of lovely songs and canzonets chosen together by the performers.
Continuing the German theme, an exceptional solo work by J. S. Bach will open Program III, the Cello Suite no. 6 in D major, BWV 1012, which Bjerken calls the “most difficult one of all.” It will be played by Eastman professor Steven Doane, whose “phenomenal” recording of all the Bach and Britten suites was the way Bjerken came to know him and his work. The two now play together in the Los Angeles Piano Quartet. Doane will be performing on a piccolo cello, which is about three-quarter size and has five strings. And of course there is always more Brahms to hear after the first evening.
Program IV will close with three of the Brahms Hungarian Dances, Nos. 9, 20, and 2, played by violinist Kopelman (a Russian who grew up speaking Hungarian and heard this sort of music played by the Roma when he was young) and pianist Yampolsky (who was born in Russia). This music will have a special flair.
The grand Brahms String Quintet no. 2 in G major, op. 111, ends close Program V, with violinists Kopelman and Wang, violists Phelps and Ben-Ziony, and cellist Doane.
The presence of Kopelman, who now teaches at Eastman and is the violinist of the Los Angeles Quartet, is a major for the Russian theme, according to Bjerken. On Program IV are Five Melodies, op. 35a, by Sergei Prokofieff, to be played by Kopelman and Yampolsky, and early on Program V comes Anton Arensky’s String Quartet no. 2, op. 35, a very romantic piece with variations in the second movement on a theme of Tchaikovsky. It will be performed by Kopelman, Phelps, and cellists Doane and Plesser, who have become friends and love playing with each other.
As Plesser was in need of a cello while performing here in the United States, Doane arranged for a copy to be made of his very valuable instrument, built by the eminent Austrian David Tecchler and dating from 1720. The copy has been delivered, and the friends will perform the Arensky on twin Tecchlers. And closing the final Program VI will be Tchaikovsky’s String Sextet in D Minor, op. 70 “Souvenir de Florence” with violinists Kopelman and Wang, violists Ben-Ziony and Phelps, and cellists Doane and Haines-Eitzen, “a grand piece to end the festival.”
Modern gems are sprinkled here and there. Cornell’s Michael Compitello will perform Rebonds A for solo percussion by Greek architect Iannis Xenakis on Program IV. Compitello put on a memorable show with a Xenakis work last year, and people loved it.
Then comes Beethoven Souvenirs for piano quartet by Amit Gilutz, one of two Cornell grad student composers represented this year. It will be presented by Kim, Ben-Ziony, cellist Elizabeth Lyon (doctoral candidate in classics at Cornell), and Bjerken, who describes the work as “unbelievably challenging and dark, with imaginative use of instrumental color.”
Fantasia Elegiaca for viola and piano, the other student composition and by Niccolo Athens, opens Program V. It will be played by Phelps and Bjerken. In the composer’s words, the piece is “bittersweet and nostalgic,” to which Bjerken adds, “it’s very, very beautiful.” Finally, to honor Cornell’s prize-winning composer and dedicated teacher Steven Stucky, Mayfest presents the East Coast premiere of his Sonata for Violin and Piano, with Wang and Stucky’s friend and Ensemble X co-director Bjerken. It is scheduled on the final program to follow the Debussy sonata, which was an inspiration for the composition. Stucky will be leaving Cornell at the end of this term to take a position at Juilliard. “We wanted to thank him and pay tribute to him.”
That is the only sad note in this promising Mayfest. Bjerken and Yampolsky are especially happy to “have the highest level of string players here.” Five of these six friends came in 2010 and played the great Schubert Cello Quintet in C Major, the “finest performance of the work” Bjerken had ever heard. Both artistic directors are looking forward to a busy season next year—especially Miri, who has extensive solo engagements on her schedule—and to planning Mayfest 2015, with good news already. The Casals Quartet, a huge hit in 2009, will be returning.
For complete programs, artist biographies, information on tickets, venues, concert times, and parking, consult mayfest-cornell.org. •