Two bona fide violin giants treated Aspen music fans to some glorious fiddling over the weekend. Even for the likes of Gil Shaham and Joshua Bell, this was something special.
Shaham made the tricky Bartok Violin Concerto No. 2 an immensely rewarding experience Saturday with Robert Spano leading the Chamber Symphony in a program that sandwiched with two familiar Beethoven works around the concerto. Bell brought his unblinking directness and warmth to bear on the heart-on-sleeve Bruch Violin Concerto Saturday, conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya drew sumptuous playing from the Festival Orchestra in a program that also introduced the festival’s new electronic organ in what might go down as the feel-good concert of the season.
Physically, Shaham is an ingratiating presence, especially because he plainly is having a great time. The furrowing brow, serious demeanor or extravagant gesture are not for him. He smiles while playing fiendishly difficult music. He makes eye contact with musicians other than the conductor — whoever in the orchestra might be carrying the melodic ball. His body responds to all of the music, not just his own big moments. The feeling of joy is palpable.
Deftly articulating the trickiest phrases, Shaham invests his pure and precise sound with emotional content. His Stradivarius, rich from the bottom of its range to the stratosphere, seems to enunciate exactly what any composer was trying to say. All these elements made the Bartok concerto an effusion of colorful Hungarian folk-inflected melodies, set against a harmonic style ranging from gorgeous simplicity to dissonant punch.
As stunningly energetic as the fast and furious sections were, the jewels of Shaham’s work were the warmth and naturalness of the singing melodies. The opening tune set the tone, and the eloquent expression of the slow movement expanded upon it. The finale picked up where the first movement left off, with Spano’s responsive conducting making everything feel fresh and communicative.
Bell’s stage presence Sunday may have had a bit more of the standard soloist’s gestures and body gyrations, but there was absolutely nothing over-the-top about his work. Bell has that magical touch of playing with such apparent simplicity that it surprises when it packs such emotional power.
He never let Bruch’s long, serpentine melodies tip over into the saccharine, spinning them out with sweetness and just enough matter-of-fact frankness to keep things honest. Hart-Bedoya was right with him, keeping the orchestra’s resonant and easy-to-grasp harmonies from getting anywhere close to schmaltzy.
The suite from de Falla’s ballet The Three-Cornered Hat that opened Sunday’s concert basically traced the entire ballet. (Each of the composer’s own two suites cover just three dances or so.) Peruvian-born Harth-Bedoya drew remarkably idiomatic playing, not just in the big brassy finale but also in the sensuous “The Miller’s Wife” and “The Grapes.”
After the Bruch concerto, the festival gave its new electronic organ a workout in Saint-Saens’ showy Symphony No. 3 “Organ.” An array of black rectangular speakers occupied most of the chorus loft behind the stage, the low-profile instrument positioned between the percussion section and the piano. James Feddeck played it with sensitivity and, when necessary, much of the power of the pipe organ the composer wrote it for.
Harth-Bedoya set propulsive tempos but nothing ever felt rushed. The organ’s delicate underlining in the lovely Poco Adagio was especially winning for its restraint. The big buildup to the finale gained momentum patiently. When the organ finally let loose with a towering chord at the beginning of the finale, it got the hair on the back of my neck tingling, especially as it played against the plush sound of the extended brass and woodwind sections. To everyone’s credit, we could still hear the strings.
The Beethoven pieces surrounding the Bartok on Friday’s concert were more of a mixed bag. Spano drew appropriately stentorian opening chords and punchy accents in the more rhythmic sections of the theatrical Coriolan Overture, which opened the program. The Fifth Symphony, however, was curiously lacking in drama.
Right from the start, when he blew right past the pauses Beethoven calls for in the opening motto, Spano seemed intent on keeping the trains running smoothly rather than drumming up the intensity. The magical transition to the finale glided smoothly rather than exploding into the sunlight of the sudden appearance of C major. The result was a careful performance, neatly tucked in at the edges. Nice, but not really Beethoven.
Not to Miss in Coming Days
The Takacs Quartet’s program tonight in Harris Hall includes Beethoven’s “Razumovsky,” while over at Belly Up, the Percussion Ensemble presents a tribute to Frank Zappa — a tough choice for some of us. Wednesday in the tent, last year’s conducting prize winner Nikolas Nagele leads the all-student Aspen Philharmonic in a program that includes Ravel’s jazzy piano concerto (Steven Osborne at the keyboard). The first opera of the season opens Thursday in the Wheeler Opera House — Tchaikovsky’s melodious Eugene Onegin. And Friday in the tent, the irrepressible Nicholas McGegan is back for more Mendelssohn. His performance of the “Rhenish” Symphony last year was a highlight.