The Music@Menlo chamber music festival is hard-core. Its 12th season (July 18-Aug. 9) will present 61 tightly woven events in Atherton, a barrage of concerts drawing on an international roster of 45 virtuosi, plus multimedia lectures (known as "Encounters"), informal music discussions ("Café Conversations"), curated listening sessions and a free series of programs featuring top young players, many on the cusp of professional careers.

It's no nonsense, in other words. Menlo is all about the music -- a point that's enthusiastically driven home by its creators.

"We don't do additives," says David Finckel, the cellist who is one of the festival's founders and artistic directors. "We don't do nonmusical enticements."

Music@Menlo Co-Artistic Directors David Finckel and Wu Han.
Music@Menlo Co-Artistic Directors David Finckel and Wu Han. (Courtesy of Music@menlo)

"It's like visiting an organic garden," offers pianist Wu Han, Finckel's wife, who is Menlo's other founder and artistic director. "Everything is artisanal, hand-crafted."

"Free range chamber music!" shouts Finckel, getting into it during a recent interview at the festival's Atherton offices. "Musicians run wild! Chamber music uncaged!"

This year's festival is titled "Around Dvorak."

It will be anchored by the Czech composer's works, while exploring Dvorak's roots in the Viennese classical tradition (Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven); his champions (i.e., Brahms); his connection to Central European musical nationalism (Bartok, Kodaly, Janacek, Ligeti); as well as his affinity for American classical music and its embrace of folk roots (Gottschalk, Ives, Crumb).

Dvorak gets pegged "as kind of a peasant composer, not like one of the intellectual big boys," Finckel notes. "He didn't put on any airs, but, boy, was he smart. He wrote an essay on Schubert, which is one of the most astute analyses. He knew the whole literature. He made nine trips to London. He did this whole American thing, where he came to this country and completely assimilated what America had to offer -- music from the African-American tradition, of Native Indians. Who else did that?"

Finckel is just getting started on the subject. And if you think it sounds arcane, well, try attending the festival, which sells out many of its events. Once they enter the Menlo bubble, audience members often get hooked.

Edward Sweeney, the festival's executive director, attributes Menlo's success to the Peninsula's "fertile soil. It's a community where people are lifelong learners. You don't see audiences like this anywhere else, where it's 'gimme more, gimme more,' " asserts Sweeney, formerly general manager of the Orchestra of St. Luke's in New York and the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado. "And a lot of the people who are most amazed and engaged are people who began with no knowledge of classical music."

The Danish String Quartet performs at the Music@Menlo Festival.
The Danish String Quartet performs at the Music@Menlo Festival. (Caroline Bittencourt)

Menlo manages to be both meticulously produced and passionately executed. It's consistent year to year, and there's no denying the excellence of the performers, many of them friends or discoveries of Finckel and Wu Han, who also direct the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York. As an example, the list of pianists they've rounded up this summer is a jaw-dropper: Gloria Chien, Arnaldo Cohen, Gilbert Kalish, Anne-Marie McDermott, Juho Pohjonen and Gilles Vonsattel are on it, as is Wu Han herself.

The festival will feature two young string ensembles: the blazing Danish String Quartet (featured in Saturday's opening program at Menlo-Atherton High School's Center for Performing Arts) and the Escher String Quartet, which will perform all four quartets by Austrian composer Alexander von Zemlinsky (July 23 at Stent Family Hall, an intimate venue on the Menlo School campus).

Zemlinsky began as a romantic, championed by Brahms, and moved toward a darker expressionism, influenced by Arnold Schoenberg, his brother-in-law. Hearing the powerful Zemlinsky cycle in a single concert is a rarity.

But Menlo specializes in such events, moving its spotlight around the chamber music literature in surprising ways. A "Beethoven's Friends" program (July 27 at the Center for Performing Arts, July 29 at Stent Family Hall) pairs Beethoven with school chum Anton Reicha (originally from Bohemia and known as a forebear to Dvorak) and Johann Nepomuk Hummel.

Composer Patrick Castillo, who doubles as Menlo's director of audience engagement, explains that Hummel and Beethoven "were the top pianists in Vienna," friends who became rivals. In the end, they were "like Yankees-Red Sox. When Hummel did a four-hand version of (Beethoven's opera) 'Fidelio,' Beethoven tore it in half."

If you enjoy such tidbits, try the four "Encounter" lectures at the Menlo School's Martin Hall. The first will take place Friday, led by David Beveridge, author of an upcoming Dvorak biography. The second is July 24, led by William Lobkowicz, heir to the Bohemian noble family that took Gluck, Haydn and Beethoven under its wing. Dvorak's father was their butcher, notes Finckel, always good with a zinger.

At Menlo, he says, "We're programming for people. We probably recognize practically every single member of the audience."

It's old-fashioned. Turn off your cell phones. Tweeting isn't allowed; arts groups that encourage tweeting at performances are headed down "a dead-end street," he says. "Do they really think that's going to bring people in?"

Menlo is an "immersion experience," says Han. "It's an oasis where passionate people gather, and where we can provide some inspiration in this crazy world. I think people are longing for that."

Contact Richard Scheinin at 408-920-5069, read his stories and reviews at www.mercurynews.com/richard-scheinin and follow him at Twitter.com/richardscheinin.

Music@Menlo chamber music festival

12th season. David Finckel and Wu Han, co-artistic directors
When: July 18-Aug. 9
Where: The Menlo School (50 Valparaiso Ave.) and the Center for Performing Arts at Menlo-Atherton High School (555 Middlefield Road) in Atherton
Tickets: $20-$78, depending on concert and venue; some concerts and other events are free;
650-331-0202, www.musicatmenlo.org