When a global pandemic struck a century ago, where did performing-arts audiences turn? David Finckel, who with fellow musician Wu Han, is co-founder and co-artistic director of the Music@Menlo festival, researched the question and learned that during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, masked audiences packed concerts as soon as performance spaces reopened.
"People were so hungry for music that they just had to go back to concert halls," he said.
But the risk of contagion at live performances was so high that apparently audience members could be ejected from the hall just for coughing, Finckel said.
Though such a strict practice might fulfill the fantasies of a few modern-day concertgoers, this year's Music@Menlo chamber music festival has found a far better solution for satisfying listeners' hungry souls, while keeping audiences, artists and everyone behind the scenes safe (bonus: with absolutely no cough drops needed). Music@Menlo usually takes place every summer in Atherton, and the festival's 2020 edition, with the theme "Intermezzo," boasts a schedule that's as packed as any other year, with three weeks of daily musical events, including an anticipated album release — but all online. "Intermezzo" launched last week and runs through Aug. 8.
Music@Menlo is carrying on, but it's not business as usual: The coronavirus pandemic led Finckel and Wu Han to postpone this year's planned "Haydn Connection" theme until 2021 and quickly create a new schedule of events for 2020.
"Intermezzo" will revisit a number of well-loved past performances, but with the addition of newly recorded interviews and conversations that offer a chance to catch up with some of the festival's featured artists from previous years, hear about where they are now and learn about their lives during the pandemic. Music@Menlo regulars will likely enjoy the chance to get reacquainted with some favorite artists, Finckel noted.
Moving online has in some ways opened up new possibilities for the festival.
"One of the silver linings of this summer is that because we could select from different seasons, we're able to have a roster of artists that is larger and more diverse than we could ever have in a normal season," Finckel said.
He and Wu Han are also co-artistic directors of the Chamber Music Society at Lincoln Center in New York City and "Intermezzo" makes the most of that symbiosis.
This year's festival draws its programming from six years' worth of high-definition concert footage from Chamber Music Society performances in New York, in addition to numerous recordings of master classes, discussions and recitals from past editions of Music@Menlo.
"We realized that we could put together a festival that if you really watched it all, it would be in many ways as information-rich as a normal festival," Finckel said.
In looking to the archives, "Intermezzo" offers audiences something unusual: the opportunity to gain new insights into past performances. Revisiting recordings of past master classes, for instance, provides a chance to reflect on the career trajectories of the young artists featured. "You can watch kids come up through those master classes over the years and now some of them are on our main stage. They mature and develop their performance to the point where they have entered the ranks of world-class performers," Finckel said.
He added that such historical context speaks to the long-term impact of educational performances like those at Music@Menlo, "not only on the lives of musicians but on the fabric of the music community at large."
"Intermezzo" highlights new performances with its Explorers series, which includes the Calidore String Quartet (July 26) performing Beethoven's String Quartet in B-flat major, op. 130 and Grosse Fuge in B-flat major, op. 133; and pianist Michael Brown and cellist Nicholas Canellakis (Aug. 2) with a program still to be announced.
Finckel noted that the Explorers series actually came about from artists reaching out to Music@Menlo to share their current projects. He hinted that there may be more "Explorers" performances some time in the future.
"Intermezzo" also features a July 26 live online launch party, which celebrates the release of a new recording of Franz Schubert's masterwork, "Winterreise," by Nikolay Borchev on baritone, and festival co-director Wu Han on piano.
The launch party will be hosted by Oliver Condy of BBC Magazine, who has covered Wu Han and Finckel's work for over 20 years.
"Winterreise" is a challenging piece for both vocalist and pianist, and though it tells quite a tragic story, "it is one of art's most profound and beautiful human journeys to be found anywhere on the planet," Finckel said.
All events are free, although donations to benefit artists are encouraged. Find a full schedule and links to watch the performances at musicatmenlo.org.