Aspen Music Festival review: Big weekend for voices, and two world premieres
August 1, 2017
Fire alarms went off almost exactly at 4 p.m. Sunday, just as the Aspen Festival Orchestra was preparing to start, evacuating audience and musicians from a nearly full Benedict Music Tent. It was an unfortunate omen for a program that included a world premiere and mostly new pieces.
No doubt the biggest drawing card was the soprano Renée Fleming singing a half dozen women-centered examples from Michael Tilson Thomas' 2002 "Poems of Emily Dickinson" (plus a couple of Björk songs). The program also included a first Aspen hearing of the new Piano Concerto by the music festival's president and CEO Alan Fletcher and a 2015 piece by Christopher Theofanidis. Stravinsky's "The Firebird" Suite, written nearly a century before the others, finished the program on a high note.
First impressions of new music are notoriously elusive. All of these pieces traveled in big gestures. They generated standing ovations, including Fletcher's Piano Concerto. Unlike the reliably amiable music, aiming for beauty, that Aspen audiences have heard in the past, this concerto confronts anger. Lots of it.
The first movement climaxes with the pianist pounding chords literally by the armful, the orchestra responding in kind before the second movement transitions into moments of quiet reflection. The outer movements quote familiar music — a hymn in the first movement à la Ives, and several American songbook standards in jazz dance-band mode, complete with a muted trumpet solo against walking bass and drum set in the finale.
From a listener's standpoint, this heartfelt work comes off like three very different postmodern pieces. Connections seem intellectual rather than visceral. A bigger problem is technical; though piano soloist Inon Barnatan could be seen working hard, aside from a few short (and effective) solo moments he was generally overwhelmed by the orchestra. Also there were no extended cadenzas, not what one expects from something called a piano concerto.
In "Dreamtime Ancestors," a tone poem inspired by Australian Aboriginal cultures, Theofanidis deploys an imaginative orchestral color palette, a penchant for pulsing rhythms and a keen ear for evocative sounds within a mostly traditional harmonic framework. The middle of three movements paints an extraordinary portrait of the "rainbow serpent" origination myth, and the finish drips with triumph.
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Orchestral playing was impressive throughout the concert, especially in "Firebird's" individual solo moments by John Zirbel (French horn) and Elaine Douvas (oboe), and conductor Robert Spano nailed the long buildup to the finale's famous climax.
The orchestra is a full partner with the singer in Tilson Thomas' songs, which were written for Fleming and her chameleon-like ability to take on a different character with each one. She was in gorgeous voice playing against the orchestra's rendering of seductive jazz to "The Bible," sassy jazz to "Fame," painterly gouaches for the restful "Down Time's a Quaint Stream" and the lyrical outburst of "Take All Away from Me."
A strong believer in Björk's musical worth, Fleming picked up a microphone and lent her unique sound to two of the Icelandic pop star's songs. Perhaps their position, between the Dickinson poems and "Firebird," made them pale in comparison.
Vocal music was a major strength in the rest of the weekend's programming, what with baritone Andrè Schuen's auspicious U.S. debut in Mahler's "Songs of a Wayfarer" in Friday night's Aspen Chamber Orchestra concert in the tent. He followed that up in a Saturday night recital focused on Schubert's "Schwanengesang" by forging a memorable partnership with pianist Andreas Haefliger.
Schuen graced both performances with a calm stage presence and a lyric sound with warmth and charm. His top range extends with ease, evoking a sense of simplicity and directness. His velvety tone expresses the words' meaning clearly.
The innovative program preceded the Schubert songs with Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 28 in A major, op. 101 and, after intermission, followed the six songs by the surrealistic poet Heine with Berg's op. 1, a piano sonata that stretches the boundaries of harmony without tipping over into atonality. Haefliger found a darker tone to give the Beethoven sonata a little extra warmth than usual, the better to match up with the gentle piano splashes that open the song set. The kaleidoscopic colors of the Berg sonata made a nice transition from the Heine songs to the simpler "DieTaubenpost," the final song.
For an encore, Schuen and Haefliger offered the heart-stopping, floating-in-time salve of Schubert's second "Wandrer's Nachtlied."
Although conductor Markus Stenz and the Chamber Orchestra in Mahler's "Wayfarer" songs Friday evening didn't quite match Haefliger's profundity the following night, Schuen's unaffected style and command of the music made it the highlight of an uneven concert.
With noticeably different interpretations of tempo and pulse, Stenz and pianist Paul Lewis had a rocky go at Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major. Schumann's Symphony No. 4 in D minor was better, but never quite made hay out of the piece's contrasts and genius transitions.
Fletcher's concerto wasn't the only world premiere this past weekend. Daniel Kellogg's String Quartet No. 1 got its first public hearing on Saturday afternoon's chamber music recital. The Pacifica Quartet, with Espen Lilleslåtten on second violin, rendered the broad, jagged lines with vigor and the contrasting ecstatic sections with wonder.
Before that, a gaggle of flutists behind soloist Nadine Asin revived the minimalist pleasures and overlapping canons of Reich's "Vermont Counterpoint" with gusto, and the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble made Christopher Cerrone's 2011 audio-assisted "Night Mare" into a truly scary 10 minutes.
NOT TO MISS IN THE COMING DAYS
Piano fans should be licking their chops over Wednesday's doubleheader of Kyrill Gerstein playing Rachmaninoff's dark but ultimately dazzling Piano Concerto No. 1 in F-sharp minor on the Aspen Philharmonic program at 6 p.m. in the tent (with conductor Christian Arming completing a formidable team to do justice to this music), followed by an unshackled Barnatan in his recital at 8:30 p.m. in Harris Hall. Thursday night violinist Robert McDuffie tackles Glass and Tsontakis — two contemporary composers with entirely different aims — and heads a group taking on Brahms' String Sextet No. 1 in B-flat major. Pianist Joyce Yang headlines Friday night's Chamber Orchestra program in Busoni's orchestral setting of Liszt's "Rhapsodie espagnol."
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