Aspen Music Fest review: First-rate opera and a dazzling bass recital
August 19, 2017
Conductor Jane Glover wrangled a slender but vibrant-sounding orchestra and a strong cast into a triumphant capper for the Aspen Opera Center's 2017 season. Heard Tuesday evening at Wheeler Opera House, Mozart's final opera, "La clemenza di Tito," emerged as a musical vehicle that kept building momentum right through to the final glorious chorus.
The opera traces the human jealousies, friendships and passions that drive plots against the caesar, Tito (Titus) in first-century Rome, who in the end rises above it all to forgive his rebellious friends. The center's head Ed Berkeley focused his straightforward direction on individual motivations, his only gloss on an otherwise traditional production being four stagehands clad in black from head to toe lurking ominously when they weren't moving portions of the set.
Atmosphere aside, Mozart's music is what really brings it all together. Favoring brisk tempos, Glover's conducting kept the pace from flagging even in the "dry" recitatives that lay out the plot between some of Mozart's most pointedly directed arias, duets and ensembles. The cast not only traced their own characters with appropriate color, they all interacted like real people.
The star was mezzo-soprano Hannah Ludwig, whose stage presence, responsiveness to the other singers and sheer vocal sumptuousness made her every moment in the spotlight special. In the pants role of Sesto, Tito's childhood friend and Vitellia's lover, her Act I recitative, "Oh Dei, che smania è questa," was a marvel of dramatic ambivalence, and her Act II aria, "Deh, per questo istante solo," in which she protects Vitellia by taking responsibility for the plot against Tito, could have moved a real-life Caesar.
As Tito, tenor Ian Koziara mustered ringing tone for his big moments to go along with a soft-edged regal mien, especially in Act II. As Vitellia, the jealous woman who sets in motion the plot against Tito, soprano Abigail Shapiro got better as the opera progressed, overcoming a shrill edge in Act I to get real warmth and sympathy into her Act II aria, "Non più di fiori."
Soprano Hayan Kim, as Servilia, Sesto's sister, and soprano Kady Evanyshyn, as Annio, her boy friend, brought silvery tone and youthful presence to their assignments. Baritone Keith Colclough, as Publio, commander of the Praetorian guaard, dispatched his announcements well.
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The last of three performances is tonight. No opera lover should miss it.
Duets with his son George on violin and with the redoubtable Alisa Weilerstein on cello highlighted string bass virtuoso Edgar Meyer's recital Thursday night in Harris Hall. Both were high water marks of a concert that ranged from Bach chorales to a couple of short, fresh and distinctive works by George, all designed to put the bass on display as the opposite of its usual role as the zoom-zoom at the bottom of the music.
Meyer can make his instrument sound like a cello. In spots if you closed your eyes you might swear that someone sneaked in a stand-in violin, only to descend to the resonant depths a moment later. His rock solid technique, consummate musicianship and deft touch make the string bass into a unique musical vehicle. Its soft dynamics almost demand that a listener lean forward and pay close attention.
The rewards began in the first half, accompanied by Tengku Irfan, the regular pianist in the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble and a fine soloist on his own. Throughout, Irfan controlled dynamics and matched Meyer's sense of rhythm.
As appetizers, cellist Gregor Piatigorsky's arrangement of a Haydn divertimento for baryton (a variation on a viol) was a tasty oddity, followed by a couple of short J.S. Bach chorales. A couple of lively Haydn canons made an appropriate segue to Meyer's own "Canon," a 2002 piece written as a duet with banjo master Béla Fleck. "The Great Green Sea Snake" (from 1986) found Meyer in a funkier mood and injected some humorous interplay with the piano.
In Rossini's witty (unaccompanied) Duo for Cello and Bass in D major, Weilerstein's own brilliance highlighted the composer's signature rapid musical gestures and juicy interplay, including a game of "I can play higher — or lower — than you."
Meyer and Meyer offered two unaccompanied pieces to open the second half. The more relaxed "No. 2" from 2009 felt more like a casual exchange of improvisations. The more recent Duo for Violin and Bass, from 2013, conjured unique bass-and-violin sonorities, piquant harmonies and lively rhythms.
George then concert-mastered nine student string players accompanying Bottessini's Bass Concerto No. 2 in B minor, which shows off a bassist's wizardry as deftly as Paganini did for violinists. Dad met its challenges, ranging from the lowest notes to some that extended past the fingerboard into violin range, all with impeccable technique and taste. One could only soak it in slack-jawed.
NOT TO MISS IN THE FINAL WEEKEND
John D. Rojak, the regular bass trombone player in the Aspen Festival Orchestra, gets a moment in the spotlight this afternoon with "SubZERO," a new concerto for bass trombone, accompanied by the Contemporary Ensemble. The afternoon's lineup also has Fauré's warm and colorful Piano Quartet No. 1 and a Janacek violin sonata. On Sunday, Rojak takes his place in the back row for the festival's finale featuring Berlioz's "The Damnation of Faust."
Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 23 years. His reviews appear in The Aspen Times on Tuesdays and Saturdays.
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