Vocal music, comedy carry the weekend at Music Fest
August 4, 2015
Wit and silliness bumped headlong into some inspired music in Aspen Opera Theater's midseason double bill of "The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts)" and "Cows of Apollo, Or the Invention of Music." The two performances were nicely staged by Edward Berkeley.
Seen and heard Saturday at the Wheeler Opera House, musical jokes and clever portrayals of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven leavened "Classical," the one-act opera co-commissioned by the Aspen Music Festival. Looking through a 21st-century lens, Jeremy Denk's libretto finds laughs in attitudes toward music's classical era (roughly 1775 to 1825). Composer Steven Stucky alternately demonstrates what made the music what it was and pokes fun at it. Addressing how music moved on from that era into more complex harmonies and forms, the final scenes created a wistful, emotional ending.
Sonorous bass Andrew Munn made a moody and gawky Beethoven, tenor Joseph Leppek voiced a younger and more youthful Haydn than expected, and soprano Sarah Vautour a surprisingly chirpy and (of course) vulgar Mozart. Leppek doubled as a bartender contending with a trio of anthropomorphized chords—Tonic, played by tenor Micah Schroeder singing "me, me, me"; Dominant, sung by soprano Alysson Dezii, fatally attracted to Tonic and the "trois" in this menage-a-trois, Subdominant (mezzo-soprano Jazimina MacNeil).
Vautour doubled as an excellent Donna Anna in a brief parody of a scene from Mozart's opera "Don Giovanni." In this version the fabled Lothario loses his, um, vigor when over-analyzed by a pedantic musicologist. Tenor Mark Williams struck just the right tone as Snibblesworth in a brilliant spoof of the Catalogue Aria from "Don Giovanni," delineating to Beethoven how widely his music is heard today.
The inspiration for all this is the highly respected musicology tome "The Classical Style." Baritone Jonathan McCullough portrayed the author, Charles Rosen, as absent-minded and prone to lecture on anything that comes to mind. McCullough doubled as the Tristan Chord, who arrives at the bar looking like the Wanderer from Wagner's "Ring." He portends music's future in a brilliant parody of Wotan's narration from "Die Walküre," complete with leitmotifs in the orchestra.
The future arrives as Robert Schumann (MacNeil) visits with Rosen, in a final scene punctuated by Anton Nel's deftly played snatches of Schumann's piano music.
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The "Cows" story (libretto by William M. Hoffman) is much sillier, what with a stage full of goat-horned Bacchanalians led by bass Andrew Dwan as Silenus, dressed like a top-hatted cannibal, and tenor Nicholas Martorano as Apollo, incongruously clad in a white suit. With baritone Dogukan Ozkan a barely draped Bacchus and a chorus of women in short diaphanous outfits, the scene felt like a staging of the musical "Hair," especially when Tyler Stahl as Hermes led a three-piece heavy metal-ish band on electric guitar.
The story follows this motley crew's search for Apollo's 50 missing cows. Hermes has them, and has turned one of them into his guitar. Chastened, he gives his guitar to Apollo, who transforms the recurring line of Hermes' music into the seeds for a glorious final hymn to music. That's just one if the glories of Christopher Theofanidis' score, which includes a soaring aria for Maia (soprano Elizabeth Novella), in which she recounts her abduction by Zeus and the birth of Hermes.
Audience response was highly enthusiastic. The laughs kept coming, the casts delivered good comedic timing and even better singing, and festival music director Robert Spano conducted a 47-piece orchestra that sounded positively Wagnerian when the scores called for it. The massed chorus of 23 student singers plus the cast of "Cows" topped off the evening with a soul-stirring finale.
More vocal music jump-started the weekend. Susanna Phillips provided the highlight of Friday's Chamber Music concert, lavishing a range of colors, impeccable articulation and an opera artist's ability to draw vivid images from the music in "Berenice, che fai?" a concert aria by Haydn. It was 12 minutes of vocal magic.
Patrick Summers, a first-rate opera conductor, seemed energized by this work in ways he was not during the rest of the program. Big gestures drew spongy articulation from the orchestra in the Chopin Concerto No. 1. Pianist Nikolai Lugansky, who triumphed last year in a deftly crafted Rachmaninov Concerto No. 3, focused mainly on creating delicate strings of pearls, seldom stretching dynamics broader than mezzopiano to mezzoforte. Similar rhythmic sogginess took the edge off Brahms' pieces—the opening Hungarian Dance No. 1 and the Haydn Variations that concluded the concert.
Barber's "Mélodies passagères," a song cycle delivered with rich tone and loving attention to text by soprano Laurel Weir, was among the highlights of Saturday's delectable chamber music olio. Renata Arado (violin), Espen Lilleslåtten (viola), Brinton Smith (cello) and Rita Sloan (piano) enlivened Spanish composer Joaquin Turina's Piano Quartet in A minor with a colorful performance, and Smith joined visiting artist Adele Anthony (violin) for a sinuous Sonata for Violin and Cello by Ravel. In between, Edgar Meyer offered five minutes of soulful, rhythmically and technically challenging work on his bass in "Thanks (for Marty)," an original piece honoring departed festival supporter Marty Flug.
Persistent rain drummed on the music tent and obscured all but the broad strokes of Sunday's Festival Orchestra program conducted by Michael Stern. Whole sections of Ravel's "Albarado del gracioso" and Debussy's "Iberia" were hardly audible. But despite the rain noise, the essence of Bernstein's "Serenade" came through. Violinist Robert McDuffie dialed up every color imaginable in articulating Bernstein's impressions of the philosophers in Plato's "Symposium." The rain let up in the central Adagio just enough to hear a soulful duet with principal cellist Eric Kim.
The strutting brass-band opening and closing movements of Hindemith's "Symphonic Metamorphosis after Themes of Carl Maria von Weber" overpowered the rain and brought the concert to a positive finish.
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Voices top the expectations for this week. This year's semi-staged opera offering in the tent, Verdi's "Aida," deploys a starry cast and the Festival Orchestra on Friday evening. Anthony plays a Bach concerto in ebullient conductor Nicholas McGegan's Baroque evening today in Harris Hall, though the highlight might be a Rameau suite to finish the program. Sharon Isbin shares the stage with jazzmen Stanley Jordan and Romero Lumbabo in a guitar-fest Thursday night in Harris Hall.
Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 21 years. His reviews appear twice a week in The Aspen Times.
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