Aspen Music Festival review: Best of 2017 | AspenTimes.com

Aspen Music Festival review: Best of 2017

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times

The Aspen Music Festival's batting average is pretty high most years, but this season may have been its best overall. The talent in the major orchestras, especially the Friday night Chamber Orchestra and the larger Festival Orchestra that played Sunday afternoons, was high across the board.

Even the season's theme seemed to connect better than usual with musical excellence. "Enchantment" produced many stellar performances rather than simply being a vague idea about musical style. Every program had something that fit the description, but the best of all might have been Ravel's one-act opera "l'Enfant et les sortilèges," in which furniture and animals come to life to teach an unruly child a lesson about love, one of the best things I've ever heard from the Benedict Music Tent stage.

A theme "has a unifying effect," festival vice president for artistic administration and artistic adviser Asadour Santourian said. "It gives our festival a profile that's different from the others around the country. It stimulates guest artists and faculty to play repertoire that they may not do during the rest of the year."

Indeed, several of the season's highlights involved "enchantment," not just the Ravel opera. Overall the music-making seldom missed the mark, despite more turnover than usual among the pros manning the principals' chairs due to unexpected medical leaves among faculty, which comes from the world's orchestras and conservatories.

Programming an eight-week music festival is a challenge. From late June to mid-August, a typical week comprises a dozen major concerts, plus an array of operas, student performances, master classes and special events. Santourian wrangles all the possibilities into a coherent schedule.

Although artists have fairly free rein for individual recitals, orchestral programs aim to do more than attract attention.

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"There has to be a standard work because these are teaching orchestras," Santourian said. "The standard repertory appears on their auditions, and they'll play these works when they get back."

Opera programming has undergone a subtle change, too. For years the Opera Center staged three operas featuring young singers in Wheeler Opera House, plus one of the Sunday concerts in the tent partially staged an opera with big-time singers. That worked fine when the season was nine weeks long, but at the current eight weeks, Santourian said, "there was great stress on the scenery and costume people to create things while another show is in progress. People were working around the clock. We're not in a position to grow those shops."

The solution seems to be working. Two smaller productions in the tent or semi-staged in Harris Hall, with student singers, have replaced one of the Wheeler shows. The Ravel opera was an alloyed success. A contemporary opera, "Seven Angels,"borrowed from Birmingham Opera in England wasn't worth the effort, although the company gave it a dedicated performance in Harris Hall.

Plenty of performances deserve one more round of applause, however. My list of a dozen that rose to the top includes artists making Aspen or U.S. debuts and ones I hope we will see again in the coming years. Others involved familiar names who found fresh aspects in familiar music.

In chronological order, then, my magnificent dozen:

July 7 and 13: Conductor Nicolas McGegan topped off a Chamber Orchestra concert with a refreshingly agile Schubert Symphony No. 9, six days later leading an ad hoc ensemble in an all-Baroque program. Pianist Anton Nel, violinist Alexander Kerr and flutist Nadine Asin were flawless in a brilliant "Brandenburg" Concerto No. 5 by J.S. Bach.

July 16: Lutaslowski's rhythmically slashing Concerto for Orchestra, brimming with contributions from soloists and combinations of instruments, was the highlight of the Festival Orchestra's concert, impressively led by conductor Larry Rachleff, showing off the orchestra principals' talent.

July 21: The Opera Center's staging in the Benedict Music Tent of "l'Enfant et les sortilèges" was the apotheosis of the season's theme ("enchantment"). With no sets or costumes, the cast turned a bare stage and a few chairs into an irresistible 6-year-old's world, singing and acting with consummate charm as conductor Robert Spano focused on musical agility and a rainbow of sonic colors.

July 27: Violinists Gil Shaham and his wife, Adele Anthony, accompanied by pianist Nel, applied technical skills and high spirits to a parade of fun music, keeping their recital light, breezy and jaw-droppingly precise.

July 28 and 29: Baritone Andrè Schuen made his U.S. debut an eye-opener, displaying a calm stage presence and velvety tune, exuding warmth and charm in Mahler's "Songs of a Wayfarer" with the Chamber Orchestra. He followed that up the next night in a magnificent pairing with pianist Andreas Haefliger in Schumann's "Schwanengesang."

Aug. 6 and 13: Violinists knocked it out of the park in two successive Sunday concerts in August. Augustin Hadelich lavished utmost care in drawing out the lyrical aspects of Brahms' Violin Concerto with Joshua Weilerstein conducting. Sergey Khachatryan made a memorable Aspen debut on Aug. 13. A tender approach to Beethoven's Violin Concerto produced one sigh-inducing phrase after another. Rafael Payare, also making his Aspen debut, conducted with precision.

Aug. 7: The Percussion Ensemble's superb concert featured cellist Richard Narroway in a harrowing but beautiful solo journey on Tan Dun's "Elegy: Snow in June" and soprano Malorie Casimir in George Crumb's unsettling set of Civil War songs, "Winds of Destiny," interspersed with a string of solo and ensemble magic.

Aug. 15: Conductor Jane Glover led the Opera Center's production of Mozart's "La clemenza di Tito," one of the best things I can recall in the Wheeler Opera House. A stunning performance by mezzo soprano Hannah Ludwig as Sesto marked her as a singer with a great future.

Aug. 17: Edgar Meyer always scores with his string bass recitals. This one shared the Harris Hall stage with cellist Alisa Weilerstein in a 10-minute whirlwind duo by Rossini and with his violinist son, George, in two pieces by the younger Meyer. Bottesini's Bass Concerto No. 2 showed off the bassist's wizardry spectacularly.

Aug. 18: Weilerstein returned the next night to draw every ounce of tragedy and tonal beauty in a soulful, heart-rending account of the Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 2. John Nelson conducted a pleasing program, including Vaughn Williams' "Fantasia on a Theme" by Thomas Tallis and tasty works by Roussel and Kodaly.

Aug. 20: The season-ender, Berlioz's opera-cum-oratorio "The Damnation of Faust," filled the stage with an outsized orchestra (conducted broadly by Robert Spano) and two choruses. The scene-stealing voices of mezzo soprano Sasha Cooke, tenor Brian Hymel and bass-baritone John Relyea made it all worthwhile.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 23 years. His reviews appear in The Aspen Times Tuesdays and Saturdays during the summer season.

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