ITHACA, NY -- After the long and dismal two years when we were deprived of our annual May treat, we will be rewarded with five wonderful live concerts at Cornell, starting May 20 and running through May 24. The founders and artistic directors of Mayfest, Miri Yampolsky and Xak Bjerken, are both on the music department faculty at Cornell. With established international performing careers they are totally dedicated to chamber music and have been organizing and presenting this festival annually since 2008.
The pandemic changed all our lives in many ways, and these two special musicians, though very aware of their privileged and safe status in Ithaca and at Cornell, have felt deeply sad about having had to give up their annual celebration of music and community, and to be deprived of seeing special friends and making music with them. Over these past years both have said how much they looked forward to Mayfest as the highlight of every year, and right now are feeling slightly overwhelmed and very excited about the coming festival.
This year’s list of participating musicians, some “canceled” artists from 2020 and 2021, is almost mind boggling. Mayfest regulars will remember cellist Zvi Plesser and violinist Xiao-Dong Wang (who this year is playing viola as well). The two have played at Mayfest in the same years seven times in all. Also returning is Chen Halevi from Israel, the happiest clarinet player one could imagine.
The star of the show, however, is a newcomer — the legendary American soprano Dawn Upshaw, who sang at the Met for many years (she will be always remembered in the role of Anne Truelove in “The Rake’s Progress”) and is beloved for her many exquisitely moving and beautiful recordings. She will be singing in four programs, performing exceedingly interesting repertory ranging from lutenist John Dowland (1563–1626, recognized today as a composer who advanced the early art song) to contemporary composers, some who studied at Cornell. She will be joined by her wife, Nikki Divall, principal violist of the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Also participating are Israeli violinist Guy Braunstein, former concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic, and his wife, flutist and composer Gili Schwarzman. Another newcomer is Bulgarian violinist Vesselin Gellev, concertmaster of the London Philharmonic.
Local performers, besides Miri and Xak, are Cornell cellist John Haines Eitzen (a stalwart Mayfest artist), along with Ithaca College saxophonist and composer Steven Banks, who recently won a prestigious Avery Fisher Grant. He and Xak are opening this year’s festival with the Sonata for Alto Saxophone by Paul Creston.
According to Xak, the programs this year were constructed carefully with their guests. While there are some lesser-known composers, there are discoveries you won’t want to miss, with special and very approachable music. Among the familiar composers, we will hear music by Beethoven and Brahms, while the festival will close with works by Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn. The music varies from the very serious to the light, where you might laugh or perhaps want to dance.
After starting off the opening of Program I (May 20, at 7:30 p.m. in Barnes Hall) with music for the saxophone, we move on to hearing Dawn Upshaw performing a group of basically contemporary songs by composers including Americans Charles Ives, Ruth Crawford Seeger (mother of the one-and-only folk singer and protest leader Pete Seeger), Jesse Jones and Jihyun Kim (who were doctoral students at Cornell in music composition), plus Margaret Bonds. Also included are Dance Preludes for clarinet and piano by Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski, followed by the Brahms Piano Trio No. 2, op. 87.
Program II, on May 21 at 7:30 p.m. in Barnes Hall, features music from a circle of European composers from the 1890s — Hugo Wolf (a work written for string quartet and arranged here for flute, violin, viola and cello), songs by Alma Mahler, wife of the famous composer and conductor Gustav Mahler, and a clarinet trio by eminent Austrian composer Alexander Zemlinsky (who had been romantically involved with Alma Mahler . . . but I digress). Also the saxophone returns with a composition by the performer himself plus music by the late great Steven Stucky.
Program III takes place on May 22 at 3 p.m. in Lincoln Hall, Room B20, and will present works by two Hungarian contemporaries, Zoltán Kodály and Béla Bartók, born a year apart and both deeply committed to promoting the folklore of their country, as one clearly hears in the Bartók. Following Beethoven’s final violin sonata, op. 96, are two pieces by American composer John Novacek (born 1964) from “Four Rags for Two Jons,” scored for clarinet and piano. They are guaranteed to make you laugh.
For a change, Program IV on Monday, May 22, at 7:30 p.m. takes us to Moakley House on Warren Road, where you can order dinner and drinks before the concert. It opens with Kodály’s Cello Sonata, op. 4 (1910), followed by a group of songs (for soprano and piano) by mostly late 19th-century European composers, including French Lili Boulanger (sister of famed teacher Nadia Boulanger), German Paul Hindemith, and Brahms, with viola — the well-known “Geistliches Wiegendlied,” based in part on a medieval German Christmas carol. Also included are a selection from the 24 Preludes for Piano, op. 34, by Dmitri Shostakovich, arranged for violin and piano. Closing the concert is an arrangement of the Chamber Symphony No. 1, op. 9, of Arnold Schoenberg.
The final Program V on Tuesday, May 24, at 7:30 p.m., returns to Barnes Hall. It opens with four songs by John Dowland in an arrangement for soprano and strings. Then comes the Robert Schumann Piano Quartet in E-flat major, op. 47, and closing this year’s Mayfest is the Mendelssohn Viola Quintet, op. 87, written when the composer was only 36 but close to the end of his life. It has a cheerful opening, followed by truly profound slow movement, and then scampers off in true Mendelssohn style at the end.
Miri explains that their goal will always be to play and hear beautiful music with the best artists, and gives the last word to the “defining figure in American music of the 20th century, Leonard Bernstein, who said: ‘This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.’”
Have no fears about parking, as the Sage Hall lot is reserved for those attending Mayfest, while for Sunday afternoon’s concert in Lincoln, parking in the Sibley lot beyond Milstein Hall is open. Moakley House poses no problem, ever. For tickets and more information, consult www.mayfest-cornell.org.