Isbin delivers uneven Concierto
August 5, 2008
ASPEN ” The slow movement of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, with its languid chords, plaintive tune voiced by the English Horn and a solo part that sounds totally improvised even if you’ve heard it a dozen times, breathed with life in the hands of guitarist Sharon Isbin. With her impeccable technique and delicate phrasing, this music shone like a jewel in Sunday afternoon’s Aspen Festival Orchestra concert in the Tent.
In that gorgeous Adagio, conductor James DePriest got the orchestra treading so lightly it was almost as if the music were suspended in time behind Isbin. They created 10 minutes or so of a long, satisfying sigh. The rest of the concerto made less magic, however, partly because Isbin’s self-contained amplification system (enhanced slightly by the Tent’s) distorted the sound of her guitar whenever she played a chord louder than mezzo-forte. She also started off indecisively in the opening movement and, especially, the finale. But then, she would flash a phrase that beguiled with its sprightliness and delicacy, and all could be forgiven.
DePriest opened the concert with an appropriately raucous performance of William Schuman’s American Festival Overture. After intermission he led a sonorous if disappointingly leaden Sibelius Symphony No. 1. This is a notorious difficult to symphony to present without its seams showing, and its episodic nature made the music seem more like a series of discrete events than a cohesive arc.
Friday conductor David Zinman drew some extraordinarily sumptuous orchestral playing from the Aspen Chamber Orchestra in Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 “Eroica.” Pianist Andreas Haefliger seemed less inspired than the orchestra, however, over-relying on the sustain pedal in the fast passages much as he did on his “Evening with…” the week before. Haefliger caught little of the concerto’s grandeur.
The mostly student orchestra generated a sound that bloomed as beautifully as anything we have heard this summer, however. Led by violinist David Chan, concertmaster of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, the plush carpet of soft strings in the slow movement not only had unanimity of purpose but glowed with the sort of distinctiveness usually associated only with the world’s top orchestras. To hear this coming from a group consisting of students plus a single professional in each section was especially gratifying. That sound continued into the Beethoven symphony, with especially strong contributions from the horns, led by principal Jennifer Montone, principal horn of the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Zinman, who favors fleet tempos in Beethoven, moved this Eroica along smartly from the beginning. The whole symphony had a zest and freshness that were immensely appealing without losing a whit of Beethoven’s majesty.
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Monday’s chamber music program in Harris Hall was a perfect example of what can be done when a festival like this one has an unlimited roster of excellent musicians, both faculty and students. It’s impossible to imagine anything like it in many other places, especially with performances at this level.
The warmup act was Poulenc’s Rapsodie negre, an amusing relic of the inventive Paris scene in the 1930s, followed by Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis, incidental music to a series of mildly erotic poems about female love and lust. Jennifer Ringo, a fine soprano, spoke the poems effectively in impeccable French, and the ensemble of two flutes, two harps and a celesta sounded appropriately sensual.
Soprano Jennifer Zetlan then sang, and acted, several Schubert songs that were aimed at a never-completed opera based on Goethe’s Faust: Gretchen am Spinnrade, a scene for Gretchen with an evil spirit (sung menacingly by baritone Nimrod Weisbrod) and Gretchen’s Prayer, left unfinished by Schubert but performed Britten’s fine completion. Zetlan did them as consecutive semi-staged opera scenes, and it worked. Pianist Miah Im accompanied seamlessly.
To conclude, the Wind Ensemble, under Joaquin Valdepenas, took the stage for some of Messiaen’s effusively orchestrated bird calls, Oiseaux exotiques. Rita Sloan delivered beautifully arched playing on piano. It was a doozy of a program.
Saturday’s chamber music concert, moved to an unaccustomed 8 p.m. slot to accommodate Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice’s afternoon event, featured a world premiere for five-piece contemporary ensemble by Barbara White, “My barn having burned to the ground, I can now see the moon.” It’s a haunting piece, based on a Japanese poem by Matsuhide, with lots of scurrying and fragmentary material that eventually dissolve into a lovely sense of quietude and grace. The Aspen Contemporary Ensemble played it with impressive attention to detail.
Also on that program, violinist Sylvia Rosenberg and pianist Barry Snyder invested unsentimental sweetness in Messiaen’s early work, Theme et Variations. And violinist Naoko Tanaka, cellist Andew Shulman and pianist Antoinette Perry stepped lively through Schubert’s evergreen Piano Trio in B-flat. But Sofia Gubaidulina’s 1984 Quasi Hoquetus turned into an ugly squawk session largely due to some horrendously ungrateful writing for viola.
A double dose of the American String Quartet offers quartets by Haydn, Beethoven and the endlessly inventive Debussy in the Tent on Thursday, and a more challenging program of Schubert, Webern and Bruckner on Saturday evening in Harris Hall. Vladimir Feltsman makes his Aspen conducting debut with Sinfonia in Harris Hall on Thursday night after the ASQ, offering Bach and Shostakovich from the piano and Mozart from the podium.
This is one evening worth marathon listening.