The Mayfest Affair

Ithaca, New York

Come mid-May in the Finger Lakes of central New York the landscape transforms itself as if overnight. Little more than a month ago there was ice on the Lake Cayuga and there was neither a leaf nor a blade of grass to be seen. Now all is green. Looking north from Cornell’s hilltop campus, the lake stretches through the expanse of forest, broken by an occasional farm. Directly below the university, only the spires of Ithaca’s many churches can be seen above the tree-lined streets and the thick deciduous canopy.  If you avoid taking in the sprawl of Walmart and Home Depot to the south, it is a nearly Arcadian landscape.  Fifteen miles to the north, where the lake bends gently out of sight, the giant smokestack of a coal plant divides the vista. This outcropping does mar the view to the horizon, but it adds to the rustic ambience a certain nineteenth-century feel: yes, the industrial revolution may be recently arrived here, but we’re still a long way from Love Canal.

The other seasonal transformation here involves animal migration—that of the students away from campus.  Though seniors stick around to revel for one more week before venturing out into some corner of the so-called real world, Ithaca’s streets suddenly become blissfully free of SUVs with New Jersey plates piloted by texting sorority sisters. The University’s arts quad empties quickly of young people as the tents go up for the rites of graduation and reunion.

In these suspended, interstitial days between the end of the academic year and the beginning of summer’s labors and lazinesses is placed Cornell’s International Chamber Music Festival, fittingly called Mayfest. Now in its seventh year, the festival is directed by Cornell pianists Xak Bjerken and Miri Yampolsky, who draw both on a vital web of local colleagues and students as well as their abundant international contacts. In this sense Mayfest is avowedly cosmopolitan—it’s music-making that thinks globally and acts locally. Both resourceful thinking musicians, Bjerken and Yampolsky have forged personal contacts over the course of their own wide-ranging careers fueled in no small measure by their shared love of, and commitment to, chamber music-making—that unique form of human interaction whose magic is as hard to explain as it is irresistible.

In an age when new generations find their prime forms of social interaction through invisible networks and when the human psyche is stretched to breaking by the centripetal forces of mass 24/7 entertainment and isolating iPhone addiction, chamber music imparts a rare, by-now almost otherworldly message of intense non-virtual, non-verbal communication. The verdant landscape visible for miles when one leaves Mayfest’s main concert venue, Cornell’s Barnes Hall—a 250-seat auditorium with brick walls, a vaulted wooden ceiling and arched windows of leaden glass—provides the perfect natural backdrop for this six-concert refresher course in the arts of awareness and intimacy.

A sense of personal connection not only among the performers but also among the audience invigorates the proceedings. Bjerken and Yampolsky have invited friends to their home turf to explore both familiar and less-well trodden areas of the seemingly inexhaustible repertoire of chamber music. The audience is welcomed as if to an informal feast, and its members all seem to know each other and the local musicians. Visiting English singer Ruth Holton captured the conviviality of these gatherings that nonetheless maintain the highest musical standards, when she jokingly scolded her audience: “Quiet down everybody, this is a concert!”

Holton and her accompanist, local and international fortepiano great, Malcolm Bilson, had come on stage for the second half of their program of late eighteenth songs interleaved with solo keyboard works. The concertgoers had continued to talk spiritedly among themselves without even noticing the reappearance of the performers, who had already given the audience plentiful servings of Bach family songs of piety and uplift whose often austere message was delivered with requisite purity and expressive devotion by Holton. These devout melodies were leavened by two C. P. E. Bach piano solos of idiosyncratic humor brought to colorful, irreverent life by Bilson, a master of musical wit ranging from the to the impishly subtle to the brazenly uproarious. He demonstrated his genius for musical comedy, both high and low, even more fully in the Haydn works played after the intermission and after the audience had suppressed its garrulousness and returned its attention to the stage.

More Bach was heard at the festival’s other hall: the upstairs hayloft of a lovingly converted carriage house, one of the most welcoming spaces for chamber music that I’ve ever had the privilege of frequenting, and not just because can also have a glass of wine during the concert. In this warmly resonant attic with amply pitched ceiling, Eastman School of Music professor Steve Doane gave a riveting performance of J. S. Bach’s sixth cello suite on a five-string instrument made in the early nineteenth century, but modernized with metal strings and endpin. Doane frolicked through the suite’s framing Prelude and Gigue, traced the artful arabesques of the richly decorated Allemande, danced energetically but earnestly in the Courante and discovered new realms of profundity in the visionary Sarabande. Some of these revelations were made possible by the unusual instrument, the one for which Bach likely wrote the suite with its profusion of sumptuous chords, the limitless truths it conveys notated on all of eight lines by Bach’s wife Anna Magdalena.

Aside from these explorations of eighteenth-century music, the staples of the Mayfest menu were from the later nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries. The imaginative tenor of the programming was made clear from the festival’s opening piece: Debussy’s Dans sacré et danse profane for harp and string quartet. Having journey from Berlin for the Mayfest, harpist Florence Sitruk’s vivid playing transported her instrument off the heavenly pedestal of cliché and into the lush world of the Parisian salon. Sitruk was joined in the quartet surrounding her by her viola-playing husband, Guy Ben-Ziony, himself a musician of tremendous verve and nuance who made essential contributions throughout the festival. Indeed, he joined in Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 1, which closed the first concert. That work’s last movement is a dance-till-you drop Romani romp—entitled Rondo a la Zingarese—and made for an electrifying demonstration of ensemble élan and violin virtuosity from another crucial visitor Xiao-Dong Wang.

The Mayfest concerts ventured beyond the chamber music capitals of Vienna and Paris, however, to less oft-visited regions like the Russia of  Arensky, Tchaikovsky, and Prokofiev. There were diverse offerings from Frank Bridge and Chopin, the latter’s Cello Sonata given a thrilling performance by the captivating Israeli cellist Zvi Plesser and Yampolsky, a pianist of molten expressive power and colossal technique.

Even if chamber music may for many evoke a world gone-by, gifted and dedicated practitioners such as the Mayfest collaborators continual renew and refigure these venerable traditions. But chamber music is also of the creative present, and Bjerken’s commitment to, and talent for, contemporary music keeps the flame burning brightly. Accordingly, there were new works from young Cornell composers Niccolo Athens and Amit Gilutz, as well as the East Coast premiere of an enthralling sonata for violin and piano, lyric and intense, from Pulitzer-Prize winner Steven Stucky, recently retired from the Cornell faculty.

The whole Mayfest affair has more the feel of a cultural holiday at a great country house, a temporary retreat from modern, noisy distraction to the best things that life once-offered and still does thanks to the energies, ideas and abilities of Bjerken and Yampolsky. A pass for all six-concerts will cost you only $100 for a dozen hours of unsurpassed music-making. It is therefore a little surprising that the concerts aren’t filled to overflowing. Like so much, even in a world inundated with “information,” people don’t know what they are missing.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com


More articles by:

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

Weekend Edition
December 14, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
A Tale of Two Cities
Peter Linebaugh
The Significance of The Common Wind
Bruce E. Levine
The Ketamine Chorus: NYT Trumpets New Anti-Suicide Drug
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Fathers and Sons, Bushes and Bin Ladens
Kathy Deacon
Coffee, Social Stratification and the Retail Sector in a Small Maritime Village
Nick Pemberton
Praise For America’s Second Leading Intellectual
Robert Hunziker
The Yellow Vest Insurgency – What’s Next?
Patrick Cockburn
The Yemeni Dead: Six Times Higher Than Previously Reported
Nick Alexandrov
George H. W. Bush: Another Eulogy
Brian Cloughley
Principles and Morality Versus Cash and Profit? No Contest
Michael F. Duggan
Climate Change and the Limits of Reason
Victor Grossman
Sighs of Relief in Germany
Ron Jacobs
A Propagandist of Privatization
Robert Fantina
What Does Beto Have Against the Palestinians?
Richard Falk – Daniel Falcone
Sartre, Said, Chomsky and the Meaning of the Public Intellectual
Andrew Glikson
Crimes Against the Earth
Robert Fisk
The Parasitic Relationship Between Power and the American Media
Stephen Cooper
When Will Journalism Grapple With the Ethics of Interviewing Mentally Ill Arrestees?
Jill Richardson
A War on Science, Morals and Law
Ron Jacobs
A Propagandist of Privatization
Evaggelos Vallianatos
It’s Not Easy Being Greek
Nomi Prins 
The Inequality Gap on a Planet Growing More Extreme
John W. Whitehead
Know Your Rights or You Will Lose Them
David Swanson
The Abolition of War Requires New Thoughts, Words, and Actions
J.P. Linstroth
Primates Are Us
Bill Willers
The War Against Cash
Jonah Raskin
Doris Lessing: What’s There to Celebrate?
Ralph Nader
Are the New Congressional Progressives Real? Use These Yardsticks to Find Out
Binoy Kampmark
William Blum: Anti-Imperial Advocate
Medea Benjamin – Alice Slater
Green New Deal Advocates Should Address Militarism
John Feffer
Review: Season 2 of Trump Presidency
Rich Whitney
General Motors’ Factories Should Not Be Closed. They Should Be Turned Over to the Workers
Christopher Brauchli
Deported for Christmas
Kerri Kennedy
This Holiday Season, I’m Standing With Migrants
Mel Gurtov
Weaponizing Humanitarian Aid
Thomas Knapp
Lame Duck Shutdown Theater Time: Pride Goeth Before a Wall?
George Wuerthner
The Thrill Bike Threat to the Elkhorn Mountains
Nyla Ali Khan
A Woman’s Selfhood and Her Ability to Act in the Public Domain: Resilience of Nadia Murad
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
On the Killing of an Ash Tree
Graham Peebles
Britain’s Homeless Crisis
Louis Proyect
America: a Breeding Ground for Maladjustment
Steve Carlson
A Hell of a Time
Dan Corjescu
America and The Last Ship
Jeffrey St. Clair
Booked Up: the 25 Best Books of 2018
David Yearsley
Bikini by Rita, Voice by Anita