The Ethos of Mayfest

Are your listening habits à la carte or “entrée”-oriented? Do you prefer musical dim sum to a prix fixe?

In the age of YouTube, iTunes, and Spotify, the world is one’s oyster, and the digital ear has a boarding house reach that extends greedily across time and place, now dipping its spoon into Alaskan John Luther Adams’ 2013 briny symphonic soup, and the next moment helping itself to the Sunday brunch fare of August 12, 1714 served up in the castle church of Weimar, Germany—a dense stew of heart swimming in blood (Mein Herz schwimmt im Blut) prepared by the local Duke’s sonic sous chef (i.e., Konzertmeister), Johann Sebastian Bach.

These questions are of course formulated in a manner distasteful to the sensitive palette—as binary opposites prepared without spice and subtlety. Nowadays you can listen in both ways, indeed, in all ways.  You can have your cake and eat it, too. In fact, you can eat it as many times and in as many ways as you want.

Nonetheless, the tension between musical variety and unity is one that has often struck commentators. In A Ramble Among the Musicians of Germany published in 1828, Edward Holmes, the best British music journalist of the first half of the nineteenth century, claimed that concert programming “furnishes an illustration of the different natures of an English and German audience, the former only satisfied with a variety of names, the latter enduring but one for the whole length of a concert bill.” Holmes favored the German approach, or at least what he saw as its more high-minded attitude towards the musical arts.

Excepting the paltry Bavarian breakfast that “barely justifies its etymology,” Holmes also rated  the foreign food he had on his trip above that of his homeland, an island not exactly renowned for its cuisine. When it came to dinner, wrote Holmes, “the German cook is an artificer so dexterous in the occult refinements of his art, so delicate in his flavours, so profound in his combinations, that the eater shall experience no malign results in the concoction of any dish in which his subtle hand hath been employed.” Whether this paean to the Teutonic culinary arts should cause us to cast doubt on Holmes’ musical judgments is a matter for another occasion.

Today’s seating is instead dedicated to a quick survey of the banquet table of Mayfest, Cornell University’s international chamber music festival. Its concerts were spread over five lively days from May 19th to the 23rd mostly on the campus above Cayuga Lake, but also in the town of Ithaca below it, and even on the next Finger Lake to the west—Seneca, named not after the Roman stoic philosopher, but the largest nation of the Iroquois.

This year marked the tenth installment of the festival, and artistic directors Xak Bjerken and Miri Yampolsky garnished the offerings with savory retrospect even while they sought new combinations, not just of musicians but of the senses, from Seneca-lake wine and locally sourced yoga.

Bjerken hails from Santa Barbara; the Russian-born Yampolsky was raised in Israel. The cosmopolitan couple has settled somewhere in between: Upstate New York.  Each has international careers that have brought them into contact with some of the world’s best musicians. The supremely talented cohort of Israeli musicians Yampolsky grew up with fanned out across north America and Europe to continue their studies, to develop international performing careers, and to take up teaching positions. Over its first decade, Mayfest has drawn abundantly on this tremendous pool of musicians, and one of the festival’s mainstays, cellist Zvi Plesser, currently on the faculty of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, was fittingly recalled this year for his typically diverse contributions.

The Mayfest concept brings in musicians like Plesser from afar and joins them with homegrown ingredients—musicians from Cornell and neighboring Ithaca College—in varied programs featuring classics of chamber music interleaved with new works by graduate student composers and already-respected figures with international reputations. This year sought not just geographic and chronological breadth, but also generational diversity with the involvement of students from Cornell and Ithaca High school students.

The festival was kicked off last Friday night by the co-directors at two pianos for a four-movement suite by Rachmaninoff that concludes with a dance-till-you-drop Tarantella that had recently been played by Yampolsky in the same hall, not with her husband but with a Pianola. Here’s to report that Bjerken bested the machine.

The opening concert concluded with Schubert’s rousing Trout Quintet, which, in the warming interior of brick, wood, and stained glass of Cornell’s Barnes Hall on the Cayuga bluffs, could be heard as a nod to the excellent fishing in the region’s glacially-carved lakes and gorge-scouring creeks. The strings were made up of local students, the youthful group anchored by Miri Yampolsky, who was also rightfully proud that her son Misha, a high school sophomore, was having a great time on the double bass making music with his mom and peers. Yampolsky commands an outsized piano technique applied with passionate expressivity, and a magisterial knowledge of the chamber music repertoire. She boosted her already energetic charges, the pure pleasure of the music-making to be seen on the faces of the players and the audience, whose median age was several decades higher than that of the string players.

In between the Schubert came Four Jazz Tunes by Stéphane Grappelli presented by the formidable Formosa Quartet in an arrangement by the group’s first violinist Jasmine Lin. She is the very embodiment of musical joy, swaying on her chair, her feet often pedaling below. One is surprised she doesn’t lift off, her gravity-defying violin leaving contrails behind. This wonderful quartet participated in the first Mayfest a decade ago. The group has a wide-ranging repertoire, a lively and nuanced approach to performance, an ethic of precision, and flair for musical ecstasy. Lin is also a poet, and on the penultimate evening of “Poetry and Music” the group performed recently retired Ithaca College composition professor Dana Wilson’s setting of her Night of H’s poem riffing on words beginning with the letter H in surreal yet narratively suggestive ways. The members of the quartet delivered their individual “H” words with a diction that, like their simultaneous playing of Wilsons’ exuberantly witty music, was all precision, timing, verve.  On the festival’s second night the Formosa gave a gripping performance of Bartók’s fourth string quartet, an often-harrowing work whose moments of agonized beauty seem poised above a catastrophe.

At Mayfest guest ensembles like the Formosa Quartet are invited to perform as a unit, but individual members are then combined in a variety of ways with the other participants.   Thus guests and visitors joined in various configurations such as that of Mendelsson’s rollicking Octet preceded by the sumptuous melancholy of Fauré’s second Piano Quartet in G minor. Formosa second violinist, Wayne Lee, joined his frequent collaborator fortepianist Mike Cheng-Yu Lee, a Cornell Ph.D. now headed to a university post in Australia, for works by Mozart and Haydn interspersed across the festival’s five evenings. Their joint utterances bring the listener into a world of vanished eloquence and ideas, the hushed to the insouciant, the mournfully pathetic to the feistily playful. The most famous venues in the world, from Berlin’s Chamber Music Hall at the Philharmonie to the London’s Wigmore Hall, should rightfully be inviting the Lee and Lee duo, whose Mayfest appearance happened to coincide with the removal of their namesake general’s statue from New Orleans.

The younger musicians were also included on the third program in the form of the outstanding Ithaca High School Chorale singing a modern motet by American composer Morten Lauridsen and three Zigeunerlieder by Brahms, rich and resonant and period appropriate in the university’s venerable Sage Chapel. The large chorus and its entourage of parents, siblings, and friends also made for the biggest audience of the festival. But nearly all of them fled into the bright afternoon at intermission, leaving a rump group of auditors for the program’s second half—Saint-Saens’ irreverently hilarious Carnival of the Animals, crisply conducted by Chris Younghoon Kim and narrated by Tish Pearlman with whimsy and punch. That this not-to-be-missed performance was missed by many of the event’s participants sends an ominous sign about the health of concert-going (or concert-staying) culture.

Also summoned to the banquet was former Cornell student, and Juilliard graduate, Daniel Anastasio. He’s making a name for himself in New York City and returned to his alma mater to take one of the piano parts in the Carnival of the Animals opposite one of his former teachers, Yampolsky, and later in the festival to captivate with Brahms’ early Variations on an Original Theme and to sparkle in Mozart’s Piano Quartet in G Minor.

The Mayfest ethos is one of convivial interaction and openness, but the last night of the festival is conceived as a salon that is still more informal. Anastasio’s Brahms and Mozart were followed after the intermission by a six-minute chorale of ethereal chords and harmonics and whispy passagework by otherworldly bassist Nicholas Walker of Ithaca College. Then came a lushly sentimental lullaby for cello and piano by Jesse Jones, another graduate of Cornell’s graduate composition program and sometime mandolin virtuoso now on the faculty of Oberlin Conservatory. Closing the festival with Yampolsky again at the keyboard, Plesser at his cello, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra violinist Xiao-Don Wang at his violin, was Beethoven’s early piano trio in C minor, its prestissimo finale closing in C-major repose, or perhaps reticence, as if the tempestuous young genius were drawing his Opus One cards close to his chest, not yet wanting to show all the aces when his hand had been called at the end of this first round.

Much is missing from this partial account of Mayfest X, including praise for other confrontations and collaborations of poetry and music on night three, and for Diptych, a profound choral work (with organ and cello) by Zachary Wadsworth, another holder of a Cornell doctorate, now teaching  at Williams College; the piece had been commissioned for an earlier edition of the festival and was beautifully reprised this year by the Cornell Chamber Singers under Steven Spinelli.

The spice of life that is variety inevitably leads to illuminating Mayfest juxtapositions and parallels. Yet it is worth noting that the only programs featuring a single name were the two yoga classes held at the Community School of Music and Arts—Bach cello suites done by Plesser and the artful violist, Paula Laraia, who in his various Mayfest incarnations always said something worth hearing on his instrument and always resisted the facile overstatement of a beautiful line, a swelling dissonance, a poignant aside.

However fortifying and delicious this Mayfest buffet, its origins described two hundred years ago by Holmes, one occasionally yearns for the sustaining recipes of a single sonic chef, school or tradition. Whatever the fare, here’s hoping that the Mayfest bounty extends across a second decade that will, one hopes, be even more hungry for its nourishment.

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