Posted at 2:04 AM on August 11, 2005
by Mary Lee
Booking the artists for a festival has got to be one of the joys of putting a festival together. Menlo Artistic Directors David Finckel and Wu Han had one of their more inspired moments this past winter when they invited pianist Claude Frank to come this year to play Beethoven's final sonata. Claude is a "musician's musician"…that is, he is one of those musicians that other musicians carve time out of their schedules to come and hear. He's also been a teacher to many, many students. In fact, when Wu Han welcomed everyone tonight she talked about the influence that Claude and his late wife Lillian had on her own professional and personal development. "Not only did they teach me how to play piano, but they also taught me about life…about being generous, honest and working hard."
(I've been fortunate enough to know Claude since he came to our MPR studios in 1984 for a Saint Paul Sunday session with the Sequoia Quartet. He's come back several times over the years and always moved us with the qualities Wu Han mentioned plus an unusual and sincere modesty about his work. As we're preparing for our 25th anniversary next year, Claude is on our "favorites" list and we're looking forward to welcoming him back to the studio this fall.)
Beethoven's final sonata is a journey and can take you to unexpected places. I thought I was prepared for this when I sat down in the audience tonight, but I wasn't really. Claude came out to thunderous applause, sat down at the piano and stole our hearts. It truly was as if time stopped. Claude must have performed this work hundreds of times over his career, but this evening it was completely original and unique. It was a performance that reminded us all of how painful and yet how glorious it is to be human. When it was over, I heard one person quietly say "oh how beautiful" and then the applause began.
Claude's daughter Pamela was in the back of the room and in the midst of the applause said to me, "I can't believe I'm related to him. Even if I wasn't he'd still be my hero." Is there any higher praise that that?
Unbelievably, there was more music after intermission. The St. Lawrence Quartet came out on stage with David Finckel to perform Schubert's gorgeous cello quintet. Oddly, it took them several minutes to start the piece and I had the impression that they almost didn't want to add anything to a perfect night. But then the 2 violinists raised their bows and played the sweetest and most tender entrance notes in clear tribute to the Beethoven just concluded.