ASPEN " A substitute conductor, a revised program and a flash thunderstorm could not dampen the energy and sheer musical power of Sunday's Aspen Festival Orchestra program. Of course, it didn't hurt that the featured soloist was Gil Shaham and the conductor riding to the rescue, Hugh Wolff, has whipped up some great music in Aspen before.
The scheduled conductor, Ludovic Morlot, returned to Paris for a family emergency. Fortunately, Wolff was available, and he knew the Khachaturian Violin Concerto, a rip-snorting showpiece of Oriental-tinged Armenian tunes and rhythms, which Shaham was to play for the first time. The soloist attacked it with obvious glee. He was so into the music he seldom played directly to the audience.
Instead, he focused on Wolff almost as if he were reading the score over his shoulder, and often turned toward musicians in the orchestra. He could also make his violin sing sweetly in contrast. The duets in the slow movement with clarinetist Ted Oien were ravishing. Through it all Shaham grinned in delight. Clearly, he was enjoying himself, and the results were irresistible.
Wolff changed the rest of the program, replacing Rachmaninov's Symphony No. 3 with Shostakovich's monumental Symphony No. 5. It's a much better piece, but five minutes into it, the rain started, got harder, and louder. It drowned out some of the quieter music, but subsided before the quiet Largo. Wolff and the orchestra remained unfazed, and they delivered some of the best orchestral playing so far this year.
Conductor Leonard Slatkin engineered a riveting performance of Aaron Copland's iconic 1944 ballet, "Appalachian Spring," on Friday's Aspen Chamber Orchestra concert in the tent. He made a point to include all the music from the original ballet, not just the suite, which adds about 10 minutes to the playing time. A good-sized chunk of the music comes just before the final iteration of the "Simple Gifts" tune, and it frames the familiar final few minutes beautifully. This stormy, agitated music gives the final, glorious go at the big tune extra majesty and makes the last few pages even more of a calming balm.
The orchestra gave it a gorgeous reading, with special mention to Bil Jackson's hushed clarinet solos. The brass had a big, round sound throughout and the soft carpet of strings couldn't have been lovelier. The program opened with Peter Mennin's highly listenable Concertato for Orchestra, "Moby Dick," a rousing 10-minute piece that made a fine curtain raiser.
Then Slatkin and pianist Joseph Kalichstein produced a performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2 stripped of pretense and bombast. Those looking for flash and pyrotechnics may have been disappointed as Kalichstein wended his way through the score without frills. But I liked his solid sense of what Beethoven most likely meant to say. Even the fugue sequence in the cadenza he played in the rondo finale felt like it emerged naturally from the rest of the music.
Over at the Wheeler Opera House, the Aspen Opera Theater Center's English-language production of "Hansel and Gretel" featured a strong cast, the assured conducting of Richard Bado, and a clever updating of the Humperdinck opera from a German forest to a post-Katrina Louisiana bayou. Seen Sunday, mezzo-soprano Carin Gilfrey as Hansel and soprano Jennifer Zetlan as Gretel sounded terrific and portrayed preteen kids effectively, while mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton came close to stealing the show with her over-the-top witch. Soprano Lauren Snouffer's Dew Fairy, costume apparently inspired by Madonna, sang sweetly and blew bubbles from a watering pail.
Bado drew a surprisingly big, rich sound from the 43 musicians crammed into the Wheeler's tiny pit, brought out many subtle details in the evening prayer scene, and achieved a satisfying musical climax in the final scene. Director Edward Berkeley's updating emphasized the sense of hopelessness in Hansel and Gretel's family, which made their triumph and reconciliation at the end all the more gratifying.
Saturday night in Harris Hall, baritone Christian Gerhaher sang an extraordinarily fine program of Schumann songs to a sparse gathering of enthusiastic listeners. Gerhaher's shock of curly hair and shy demeanor drew his audience close, and his silky sound wove an entrancing spell. His high baritone soared easily to gleaming high notes, with no sense of strain. He displayed an actor's attention to words and their meaning, coupled with a musician's sense of phrasing and dynamics. The music just flowed. Each song in "Dichterliebe," the centerpiece of the evening, had tremendous individuality, while fitting seamlessly with the ones around it. That's outstanding lieder singing.
Ingo Metzmacher, who will be conducting the Aspen Concert Orchestra tonight, provided the piano collaboration, and in Schumann's case it's a fairly equal partnership. Together, they brought the music to life with impressive grace, elegance and, when needed, power.
Gerhaher is part of a generation of outstanding German lieder singers that includes Thomas Quasthoff, Wolfgang Holzmair and Matthias Goerne. He is every bit in their league, and it is puzzling that virtually none of the young singers in the festival's vocal program were present to hear this recital. They should be exposed to singing of this caliber.
Evening-length vocal recitals by visiting artists are a rarity at the Aspen Music Festival. It has been seven years since Dawn Upshaw did one, the most recent I can recall not involving a member of the artist faculty (such as Susanne Mentzer). Despite the light turnout for this one, it would be a shame if the festival were to give up the idea, especially with artists of Gerhaher's caliber.
While major events feature violinist Robert McDuffie in a special event recital in Harris Hall on Thursday night, pianist Andreas Haefliger in the Brahms Piano Concerto on Friday in the tent, and guitarist Sharon Isbin in Rodrigo's lovely Concierto de Aranjuez on Sunday in the tent, some savory stuff comes in between.
In a nice prelude to the Friday program, pianist Ann Schein plays Beethoven's Eroica Variations in the pre-concert at 4:45 p.m. in Harris Hall before David Zinman conducts the Eroica Symphony in the Tent. Piano fans should make tracks.
Another pianist, more familiar for other things, plays the tent Saturday afternoon: Condoleezza Rice. The usual Saturday afternoon faculty artist chamber music program shifts to evening in Harris Hall and it's chock full of terrific music waiting to be discovered. And Monday's 6 p.m. chamber music program, usually in the tent, moves to Harris Hall to showcase some outstanding voices singing music inspired by Goethe's "Faust."