ASPEN - Sometimes the opening notes of a concert can tell you everything you need to know about what's to come. Jeffrey Kahane coaxed a soft cushion of sound from his piano on the first chord of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4, signaling that Friday night's Chamber Symphony concert would be all about elegance. And indeed Kahane delivered Beethoven with panache, Berlioz with perfumed grace and Ligeti with a remarkable lack of inhibition.
On Sunday afternoon, three percussionists and an impressive line of brass players muscled up for Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" to open an all-American program by the Festival Orchestra under conductor Hugh Wolff. And yes, this concert was about power, but with enough refinement and deftness to keep the proceedings in bounds.
The performances Sunday were riveting. Violinist Robert McDuffie lent his trademark intensity and verve to William Schuman's mercurial and boldly driven Violin Concerto (the final version debuted in 1959 right here in Aspen). Wolff and McDuffie had a clear idea of what emotions they wanted to pursue in the daunting concerto, Wolff tying each episode seamlessly with the next. It was challenging for both soloist and orchestra, and they pulled it off right through a vibrant finish.
To finish things with flair, Wolff conducted a majestic performance of Copland's Symphony No. 3. "Fanfare for the Common Man" appears at the beginning of the finale, providing material for the entire piece, really. It brought things nicely full circle. In both the opener and the symphony, the brass achieved a glorious sound, rich and opulent without being excessively weighty, deftly balancing legato playing with crisp articulation. David Herbert underlined it all with expressive exposed work on timpani. Wolff and the orchestra captured Copland's signature sounds of open harmonies and throbbing rhythms. A pounding cloudburst could not obscure the first two movements, generally loud enough to be heard. Miraculously, the rain let up for the quiet third movement, distant rolls of thunder adding a wonderful extra sense of mystery. The fanfares and buildup to climaxes in the finale were nothing short of thrilling.
Friday night's concert offered a wealth of fine performances, not least the orchestra itself under conductor Kahane. He played and conducted the Beethoven concerto elegantly, fleet of tempo and almost dance-like in its well-sprung rhythms, expressive even if some of the rapid-fire runs were less than precise. With concertmaster Alexander Kerr keeping the troops together when Kahane was occupied at the keyboard, the performance was seamless.
Berlioz's throbbing song cycle "Les Nuits D'ete" finished better than it started. In "Villanelle," the first song, a strident edge to mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung's voice ran counter to the supple lyricism of the music. But in the third song, the mournful "Sur la Lagune," she found the sweet spot, and the fourth song, "Absence," with its gorgeous refrain on "Reviens, reviens," made magic.
Those members of the audience who fled the tent after that piece missed an exciting discovery, Ligeti's Romanian Concerto. The seldom-performed work, written before Ligeti developed the eclectic and often strange and wonderful style for which he is known, is basically a folk-song suite of Slavic and gypsy music. Too bad it had to compete with a rainshower drumming on the tent roof.
Pianist Ingrid Fliter's Saturday night recital comprised the Beethoven Sonatas No. 17 and 18 in the first half and No. 23, known as the "Appassionata," in the second. Fliter pounced on the music, drawing out as much contrast as she could. That worked great in the "Appassionata," where she had a good idea of the piece's architecture and drew intelligent phrasing and deft transitions from the music. But whole pages of the two sonatas in the first half got muddy from undifferentiated textures in the loud passages. Her encores - a Chopin nocturne and the famous "Minute" waltz - revealed a pianist of remarkable clarity in that music.
Earlier Saturday, the afternoon chamber-music program opened with Steve Reich's early minimalist flutefest, "Vermont Counterpoint." Soloist Nadine Asin led 15 students on piccolos, flutes, alto flutes and a bass flute through the work, her solo part more of a texture expander than the front-and-center theme-carrier that we might expect. Everyone played crisply. Also on that program, pianist Anton Nel bid farewell to the festival for this year in a refreshingly focused and clear-eyed collaboration with violinist Adele Anthony in the Debussy Violin Sonata.
International stars Stefan Jackiw, Orli Shaham and Gil Shaham, all of whom have ties to the Aspen Center for Physics, join resident colleagues for some Mozart, Brahms and Mendelssohn in a special event Tuesday to celebrate the Fizzies. The Aspen Opera Theater Center opens "Sweeney Todd" in a benefit Thursday, the first of three performances.