Like the saxophone in jazz, the electric guitar in rock ’n’ roll or the accordion in polka, the violin established itself in the mid-17th century as the principal vehicle for Western classical music. Even today, in the age of the sampler and the contrabass flute, it’s the violin that still does most of the heavy lifting.
So the 15th season of the Music@Menlo chamber music festival, which got off to a wonderful start Saturday night in the Center for Performing Arts at Menlo-Atherton, has an important story to tell. The coming weeks will trace the violin’s history up close to (though unfortunately not quite into) the present day.
The journey began with some of the Baroque masters who first established the instrument’s dominant role — a handful of lesser-known Italians who explored its technical and expressive capabilities followed by the composers, including Vivaldi and Bach, who helped expand those resources into an ever more flexible, vibrant musical lexicon.
It’s a portrait that can’t be fully drawn without the contributions of expert practitioners, and Music@Menlo has developed a stable of them over the years to embody the programming of artistic director Wu Han and David Finckel. Saturday was the violinists’ night to shine.
That included Arnaud Sussmann, who took center stage for a riveting account of Locatelli’s Concerto in G Minor, Op. 3, No. 6, and gave it a reading of dramatic sweep and immediacy built around the piece’s long, extravagant solo cadenzas. It included Adam Barnett-Hart, who tore through Tartini’s famously difficult sonata known as the “Devil’s Trill” without seeming at all daunted by either its technical challenges or its knotty textures.
And it included Soovin Kim and Aaron Boyd, who joined with those artists in various configurations as soloists for a first-rate back-to-back combination of double concertos to bring the evening to a close. Barnett-Hart and Kim made an engaging and often unanimous partnership in Vivaldi’s D-Major Concerto, RV 564. Boyd and Sussmann, by contrast, spent Bach’s D-Minor Concerto, BWV 1043, seeming to spur each other on to greater heights through piquant rhythmic and melodic dislocations.
That was the relatively mainstream repertoire, but some of the evening’s richest pleasures came in the earlier and less familiar fare. Marco Uccellini’s 1645 Sonata No. 18, for example, sets two violins jabbing and twirling around each in a closely choreographed pas de deux, and Barnett-Hart and Sussmann gave the piece a vivid sense of immediacy.
Carlo Farina’s “Capriccio stravagante” from 1627, which began the program, is an elaborately theatrical catalog of all the things the violin can do, set against an ensemble backdrop. It includes straightforward tunes and dances that recur at regular intervals — but also special effects (playing with the wood of the bow, strumming the instrument like a guitar), imitating other instruments, and in the broadest comedic strokes, conjuring up poultry, dogs and cats, with predictably hilarious results.
Music@Menlo: Through Aug. 5. $20-$70. Center for the Performing Arts at Menlo-Atherton, 555 Middlefield Road, Atherton; Stent Family Hall, Menlo School, 50 Valparaiso Ave., Atherton. (650) 331-0202. www.musicatmenlo.org