Review: An eclectic feast of orchestral juiciness
July 18, 2017
In the Aspen Music Festival's third week both of the prime-time orchestras, the ones with professionals in the principal chairs, found their footing in a refreshingly wide range of music.
The Aspen Festival Orchestra on Sunday afternoon in the Benedict Music Tent was especially beguiling, in part because of the contrasts between the shimmering pastels of "Prélude to the Afternoon of a Faun," which opened the concert, and Lutoslawski's edgy and rhythmically slashing Concerto for Orchestra, finishing off with a vital and deftly played Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 5 "Emperor." The assurance of Larry Rachleff's conducting and the responsiveness of the players made it all the more impressive.
The highlight of the weekend for me, the boisterous Concerto for Orchestra, brimmed with contributions from soloists and combinations of instruments, some mixed and matched from different sections. All were dispatched brilliantly, but the standouts included a lithe turn by English horn Michelle Pan and a growly mix of lower brass, woodwinds and strings that preceded a passacaglia in the finale.
The musicians all seemed to relish this concerto's music. As in Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra, his model for this work, Lutoslawski transformed folk idioms with edgy harmonies and injected his signature droll wit. A strong pulse of tantalizing rhythms kept the engine humming; a big percussion section, and especially timpanist Edward Stephan, providing plenty of momentum.
It couldn't have been more different than the diaphanous textures of Debussy's 10-minute prelude, which preceded it. Flutist Nadine Asin rendered the familiar opening flute solo with a gloriously warm tone, and Summers caught the languid sexiness in the music as it played out.
Although the "Emperor" Concerto has its grandiose moments, pianist Nikolai Lugansky focused on the small turns of phrase, savoring moments of clarity and the extra texture that comes from adroitly executed trills and crystalline tone. If the sustain pedal blurred some of Beethoven's cascades into a general wash of sound (particularly in the opening measures of the finale), the rapid run up to the final chord was a marvel, like sprinkling stars.
Friday's Aspen Chamber Orchestra program, also in the tent, began with a piece inspired by Japan, Brazil and American jazz, then two violin showpieces touched on Baroque Italy and 19th-century Hungary, and the second half used an ethereal Wagner prelude to set up a satirical romp by Prokofiev. It also was one of the shortest orchestral concerts in years, clocking in at less than 90 minutes. Conductor Patrick Summers coaxed well-defined individual colors from the orchestra in all this music. The Friday soloist, violinist Sarah Chang, seemed to have toned down some of her stagy histrionics and found an accuracy and roundness of sound in the lower register that had been missing in previous engagements here. This was especially welcome during the Chaconne in G minor, a favorite of Jascha Heifitz, essentially a series of increasingly fanciful variations for the violinist over a steady accompaniment from the orchestra.
Ravel's "Tzigane," a French composer's rhapsody on Gypsy elements in Hungarian music, is mother's milk for an extrovert like Chang. Thankfully she stopped short of going over the top, and simply played the hell out of it. Pro that he is, Summers dutifully kept up with her constantly shifting pulse (even though the soloist hardly ever looked at him).
The Friday opener, Stephen Hartke's 1997 "Pacific Rim," played winningly with timbres of Japanese music, jazz gestures and orchestral colors in a snappy overture-like package. Summers, a mainstay in opera pits internationally, was in his element with music from two very different operas. He got the strings to capture the high harmonic magic in the Prelude to Act I of Wagner's "Lohengrin," then ripped away all sense of propriety with rollicking music from Prokofiev's "The Love for Three Oranges."
The highlight of Saturday afternoon's faculty chamber recital, a Brahms Piano Quartet No. 3 in C minor, brought together longtime collaborators Sylvia Rosenberg (violin), James Dunham (viola), Michael Mermagen (cello) and Anton Nel (piano). All executing with vim, clearly listening carefully for each other's cues, big and little, creating extraordinary unity. That's the essence of fine chamber music.
NOT TO MISS IN THE COMING DAYS
Tonight in Harris Hall, Lugansky plays Chopin and Rachmaninoff. Although Wednesday's star turn is Chang's go at Vivaldi's "Four Seasons," the 6 p.m. concert in the tent features George Manahan conducting the all-student Aspen Philharmonic in Strauss' "Death and Transfiguration" and Prokofiev's savage "Scythian Suite," plus violinist Jennifer Koh playing a 2015 piece by Anna Clyne. The American Brass Quintet plays Thursday in Harris Hall. Capping off the week, the Chamber Symphony and Gil Shaham play Jonathan Leshnoff's 2015 Chamber Concerto and the Opera Center's semi-staged production of Ravel's one-act, magical "L'enfant et les sortilèges" on Friday in the tent. Robert Spano conducts.
Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 23 years. His reviews appear in The Aspen Times on Tuesdays and Saturdays.