Aspen Music Festival finishes on a high note | AspenTimes.com

Aspen Music Festival finishes on a high note

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times

The Aspen Music School and Festival ended Sunday with "The Damnation of Faust" at the Benedict Music Tent.

The Aspen Music Festival's 2017 season went out with a bang, riding the spectacular voices of mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, tenor Bryan Hymel and bass-baritone John Relyea in "The Damnation of Faust," Berlioz's 21/2-hour extravaganza based on Goethe's "Faust."

Their arresting sound and concise vocal characterizations of (respectively) Marguerite, Dr. Faust and Méphistophilés carried the day. The Aspen Festival Orchestra and the Colorado Symphony Chorus (expanded with the Evans Choir of Denver) seemed to shake off cobwebs in the first half. But conductor Robert Spano marshaled his forces to gain traction in the second half, with its more varied and colorful music (and the arrival of Marguerite, Faust's love interest).

Until then, the near-capacity audience could savor Hymel's powerful, arrow-to-the-target voice as he outlined the title character's ennui and the resplendent sound and muscular presence of Relyea as the demon who lures Faust into hell itself by providing him with pleasures. First stop is a rowdy drinking cellar, where the tipsy men satirize a fugue on "Amen" and Méphistophilés' "Song of the Flea" trumps the minor character's "Song of the Rat" (sung by bass Federico De Michelis). That sequence came off as the best part of the first half.

The pursuit and winning-over of Marguerite, which occupies much of the second half, allowed for more deftly nuanced singing, first by Cooke, who traced the Gothic song "The King of Thule" with plush tone and gentle pulse. She created another magical moment with "D'amour l'ardente flamme," touchingly accompanied on English horn by Michelle Pan. Hymel matched her supple sound in the love duet.

The orchestra perked up with sprightly, colorful will o' the wisp music, and laid down a sensuous foundation for the extended love scenes, where Hymel shifted down his heroic voice to create beautiful moments.

The final scenes, in which Méphistophilés engineers situations to get Faust to sign up for hell, could have created more momentum before easing off into the sublime "Marguerite's Apotheosis," the reverent finale. But in the end the assembled forces successfully met the sheer challenge of this epic undertaking. The standing ovation was well deserved.

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The weekend began at a high level as cellist Alisa Weilerstein drew every ounce of tragedy and tonal beauty from the Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 2 in G major. Playing with her customary emotional fervor and rock-solid technique, she spun phrases that ached, arched and tore at the heart. Not a show-off concerto, this one uses the cello's dark timbre to cast a palpable sense of poignancy and regret.

Musically, however, much that goes on is fascinating. Each of the three movements revolves around byplay between the soloist and percussion. The tinkle of xylophone brings some brightness. The thud of a bass drum provokes an angry response from the cellist. A sardonic scherzo coalesces into a march. Weilerstein and conductor John Nelson sustained these shifting moods into an eloquent and memorable 40 minutes of music.

Nelson opened the program leading a soulful and evocative performance of Vaughan Williams' "Fantasia on a Theme" by Thomas Tallis, setting the stage for the concerto by making the most of its sustained, serene churchlike atmosphere.

The second half took a step toward lifting spirits with Roussel's painterly Impressionistic music, the Symphonic Fragments from his ballet "Le festin de l'araignée (The Spider's Feast)," even though the actual ballet ends with the death of two of the insect characters. Kodály's vividly rhythmic and expressive "Dances of Galánta" ended the concert with élan. With Nelson seemingly channeling the dancing spirit of conductor Nic McGegan with some unexpected gyrations on the podium, the music came out lithe and refreshingly bright.

Saturday afternoon's program in Harris Hall included a jazzy and colorful concerto for bass trombone, featuring John D. Rojak, the anchor of the Aspen Festival Orchestra's brass section. "SubZERO," written in 1999 by Daniel Schnyder, travels in elements of free jazz, Broadway brashness, Latin American tropes and hints of other world-music rhythms. At times it was a bit too much for the enhanced forces of the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble, but an unfazed Rojak delivered every phrase with pure tone and rapid responsiveness, especially in the parts where he was playing along with double bass Andrew Downs.

The attractive program also included Fauré's Piano Quartet in C minor. Though pianist Julian Martin could have applied a defter touch, Renata Arado (violin), Espen Lilleslåtten (viola) and Brinton Smith (cello) kept it sailing smoothly. To finish, violinist Donald Weilerstein and pianist Vivian Hornik Weilerstein (Alisa's dad and mom) brought out many nice nuances in Janácek's quirky but evocative Violin Sonata.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 23 years.

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