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


DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at