Last week was a good time to appreciate the artists of the Aspen Music Festival faculty and their students. Highlights include a memorable performance of the Shostakovich Piano Quintet by faculty stars in Monday’s weekly chamber-music concert and a rollicking romp through the music of Frank Zappa and Edgard Varese on Tuesday by percussion students. On Thursday, the Aspen Opera Theater took awhile to get revved up, but when the young cast finally clicked, they knocked Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” out of the park. (There are two more chances to see it — tonight and Monday.)
Even a somewhat clunky English translation could not diminish Tchaikovsky’s lush and emotionally potent music to Pushkin’s tale of a rake who condescendingly rebuffs a young woman, provokes a fatal duel with his best friend and lives to regret it all. The music benefited from powerful voices in the leading roles, a lively chorus (many of whom could actually dance, too) and a conductor (Steven Mercurio) who knows his way around the score. Edward Berkeley’s production hewed carefully to the Russian story and characters, creating eye-catching scenes with movable stands of birch trees, a few chairs, curtains and a bed.
Baritone Craig Verm sang the title character with panache, missing only some early charm to explain how he could attract the love of the innocent Tatyana, sung by baby-faced soprano Yelena Dyachek with formidable sound. Tenor Benjamin Bliss, scheduled to make his Metropolitan Opera debut in November, sang Lensky with vibrant intensity and real musicality.
The first act, however, found the whole cast just a little too careful for the passions they had to represent. The second act, which opens with a ball and ends in a duel, picked up the pace as tenor Brad Raymond contributed an extravagantly fey portrayal as Monsieur Triquet at the ball, and Bliss gave Lensky’s pre-duel aria beautiful shape and expression. The third act, in which a despondent Onegin returns from travels to find Tatyana married to a war hero, Prince Gremin, finally cranked up the intensity to the required level. Although Gremin’s wonderful bass aria lacked sonority and low notes, the final scene, as Onegin tries and fails to win back Tatyana, crackled with musical high voltage.
The Shostakovich Quintet lineup featured longtime Aspen faculty favorites violinist Alex Kerr, violist Masao Kawasaki and cellist Eric Kim, with international star pianist Stephen Hough and standout 20-year-old violinist William Hagen. They played with unity of purpose and articulation on a piece that ranges from deft little dance figures to raw emotional swipes. What stood out was the vividness of the music-making, leavened with portions of humor, delicacy, power and emotional clarity where appropriate. The slow fugue in the second movement unfolded with aching restraint, the scherzo in the third movement careening from one point to the next like a pinball machine. The elegiac fourth movement hovered in space expectantly for the finale, which emerged into a sudden patch of sunlight, finishing with unexpected grace.
The Percussion Ensemble’s gig at the Belly Up, usually occupied by non-classical music acts, fulfilled a dream for the group’s director, Jonathan Haas. Seeing how Varese’s music affected Zappa’s, he got the iconoclastic musician’s permission to include both composers’ music on a concert. For this week’s event, Haas pulled Zappa’s music together with Varese’s.
There were muscular renditions of Zappa works such as “Peaches En Regalia,” “We Are Not Alone” (complete with a solid trumpet trie) and “Idiot Bastard Son” (the latter a bitter satire of a 1980s congressional attempt to apply ratings to popular music). Faculty flutist Nadine Asin gave Varese’s “Density 21.5” a sinuous reading. But the topper came with a mashup of Varese’s iconic percussion masterpiece “Ionisation” and Zappa’s “Black Page,” with its fiendishly difficult counter-rhythms intended to confound drummers. Drum-kit soloist Andrew Talley handled it with aplomb.
On Wednesday’s Aspen Philharmonic program, last year’s conducting-prize winner, Nikolas Nagele, had his hands full with a racing soloist in the Ravel Piano Concerto in G major and sometimes laggard playing by woodwinds in the Dvorak Symphony No. 8 in G major. Things got smoothed out in a finale that reveled in sonorous brass phrases.
In the second half of the doubleheader, another group of faculty hotshots teamed with visiting violinist Daniel Hope in Stravinsky’s “Histoire du Soldat.” Their playing was fine, especially in slyly articulated duets between Hope and Burt Hara (now principal clarinetist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic) and eloquent playing by Louis Hanzlik (the new trumpet player with the American Brass Quintet). Superstar bassist Edgar Meyer was luxury casting. Still, the differences among the several characters and scenes could have been defined more clearly.
A translation too poetic and a staging that lathered on too much extra theatricality overwhelmed the droll parable about making choices in life. Opening with a long antiwar message and a comic arrangement of Beethoven’s “Overture to Egmont” just stretched out the space between Stravinsky’s music.
Not to miss in the coming days
Violinist Anne Akiko Meyers and pianist Anton Nel bring their much-lauded musical partnership to Harris Hall tonight at 8. Pianist Yefim Bronfman, originally scheduled to play the Tchaikovsky Concerto, will be doing the Beethoven “Emperor” Concerto instead in the Festival Orchestra’s 4 p.m. program today that also will include Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 “From the New World.”