Review: Aspen Music Festival delivers in first full week
July 8, 2017
Aspen Music Festival's theme this year — "enchantment" — showed up with regularity in concerts this week, if in different guises.
The Takács Quartet picked up on one kind of enchantment Wednesday in Harris Hall, creating a sound world that felt like nature tinged by magic. Their supple approach caught the freshness and impetuousness of Ravel's deceptively ear-soothing String Quartet in F major, especially first violin Edward Dusinberre and violist Geraldine Walther.
The composer's harmonies and other details strongly influenced jazz composers to come. This was apparent in the freely moving first movement and the shifting three-against-two rhythms of the second. The slow movement sang soulfully, and the finale took off like a rocket and never fizzled.
The players seemed more cautious in the opening work, Haydn's ebullient String Quartet in D major, Op. 20 No. 4, until the finale, marked presto e scherzando, which galloped home with verve. In the program's second half, violist James Dunham enriched the texture but still kept it refreshingly light in a run-through of Dvorák's String Quintet in E-flat major, Op. 97.
Impressionists like Ravel provided much of the enchantment in a dazzling recital of flute and harp music Thursday in Harris Hall. Marina Piccinini commands every nuance possible on the flute from rich, round tones to wisps of breathiness, executed with precision at any tempo. Anneleen Lenaerts, the Vienna Philharmonic's principal harpist, has been coaxing magical music from her instrument here in Aspen for several years. The pairing was mesmerizing.
Although the program began with Bach and ended with Bartók, the musical air was tinged with the loose-limbed rhythms and lush, billowing harmonies of Ravel and his contemporary, the Belgian composer Joseph Jongen. Even the world premiere on the docket, the sensuously fragrant "Sonate 'Flore' pour flûte et harpe" by Japanese composer Yuko Uebayashi, played out in the same vein.
That seemed to work better than Bach's Sonata in G minor, BWV 1020, the soft-edged sounds of both instruments making it tricky to find a balance or strike the rhythmic edges, except in a dreamy slow movement. Solo harp cushioned the gritty edges of Bartók's Hungarian folk tunes in the program's finale.
But give the flute and harp the plush sounds of French-American harpist Carlos Salzédo's richly embroidered trio arrangement of Ravel's Sonatine (originally for solo piano) and it makes the music more substantial, at least in the hands of these musicians and cellist Darrett Adkins. The program's centerpiece, Jongen's "Concert à cinq," feasted on all these elements and played delightfully with the string trio against the flute and harp. Lenaerts' solo turn on Jongen's "Valse" made a delicious lagniappe.
Even better was the encore, Fauré's famous "Fantaisie," originally for flute and piano but enriched by the combination with harp.
The first of the Aspen Festival Orchestra's Sunday afternoon concerts began the week with impressive work on Mahler's Symphony No. 1 in D major, especially given that the orchestra of professional principals and students had been together for less than a week. As memorable as the big fanfares and expansive concluding perorations can be, the meat of this work is the way Mahler's delicately fragrant forest scenes give way to rustic dance music and sweeping romantic gestures.
The festival's music director, Robert Spano, caught both the broadest and finest strokes of tempo, dynamics and critical orchestral balances. He drew the best playing in the quiet, subtle moments of the score and long buildups to big climaxes. If rhythmic contrasts were not as sharply defined as they could be, the substantial timbres and textures could raise the hair on the backs of listener's neck.
The opening pages, a nature scene with wispy string chords, rustling rhythms in the low instruments, woodwind cuckoos and far-off fanfares, could stand as the poster example of this season's theme. The transition into the bouncy first tune, one of many borrowed from Mahler's "Songs of Wayfarer," was seamless. The returns of the fanfares here and in the finale were models of sonorous brass playing,
The contrasts in the second and third movements could have been more sharply drawn. Although the German dance of the second movement could have lilted a bit more to frame the gentle tune in the trio, the scene-setting in the third movement funeral march (a minor-key version of "Frère Jacques"), got off to a great start with principal bass Bruce Bansby's solo statement. The development spread wonderfully through the orchestra, even if the Klezmer-like sections came off a bit tame. The crashing opening measures of the finale set the final 20 minutes onto a path than concluded in a brilliant blaze.
Preceding the symphony, pianist Garrick Ohlsson fashioned a deft performance of Mozart's youthful, exuberant Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat major. Ohlsson's crystalline touch made the piano's impertinent interruptions, and an extended cadenza, glow with charm. The Andante carried a sense of pathos, which lingered only briefly before the witty finale brought everything to a satisfying close.
Monday night's faculty chamber music program in Harris Hall featured an eclectic mix of standard repertoire. An unpretentious and unclouded rendering of Beethoven's Violin Sonata No. 10 in G major played by Masao Kawasaki (usually heard in Aspen playing viola) and pianist Wu Han opened the proceedings. Sylvia Rosenberg brought out the pungent details of nine solo violin miniatures from Kurtág's "Signs, Games and Miniatures," and the program ended on Dukas' own charming two-piano version of his "Sorcerer's Apprentice tone poem." Dong Xu Jin and Youlan Ji, two young students of Yohaved Kaplinski, played it with crisply defined wit.
The highlight, though, was soprano Mane Galoyan. A second-year member of the Houston Grand Opera's development program (she will be singing the title role later this month here in "La Traviata"), Galoyan lavished gorgeously pure tone and personality on a series of Russian and Armenian songs, accompanied responsively on piano by Kenneth Merrill. Most memorable were the charm of "The Rat Catcher," the first of four Rachmaninoff songs, and the drama of Medtner's "Our Time" and Mirzoyan's "I Had a Dream," which concluded the sequence.
NOT TO MISS IN THE COMING DAYS
A rich weekend of pianists starts this afternoon with the redoubtable Marc-André Hamelin anchoring a Schumann Quartet in the chamber music concert. Tonight Conrad Tao, who virtually grew up in the Aspen Music Festival, begins with a world premiere and finishes with Liszt's monumental Sonata in B minor. Yefim Bronfman makes his always-anticipated annual appearance Sunday playing Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2; Michael Stern conducts the Aspen Festival Orchestra in the tent. And Monday night Tao, Bronfman and Anton Nel share piano duties in Chausson, Smetana and Schubert chamber works in the tent.
Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 23 years. His reviews appear in The Aspen Times Tuesdays and Saturdays.