Music Festival recitals excel with ensembles
August 1, 2008
ASPEN ” Two recitals this week proved most rewarding when the soloists worked with ensembles, while the best things about the Percussion Ensemble concert were the featured soloists.
In his special event at Harris Hall on Thursday, violinist Robert McDuffie offered an extended set of Viennese bonbons, mostly by Fritz Kreisler, as his only solo efforts. Usually he melts hearts with his sensitive playing on these musical miniatures, but he seemed to struggle with them this time, only occasionally sculpting a silken phrase, as in Schön Rosmarin.
Inon Barnatan accompanied ably on piano, but his most brilliant playing, and McDuffie’s, came in Chausson’s Concert in D major, a sextet of French hyper-Romantic music that gives the heavy lifting to the piano and lead violin. With a quartet of David Halen and Amy Schwartz Moretti on violin, Gilad Karni on viola and Sietse-Jan Weijenberg on cello, this music took off like a shot. One wished McDuffie had something this juicy to sink his teeth into in the first half. The closest he came was the opener, Prokofiev’s Sonata in C major for Two Violins with Moretti, which came off as well crafted but dutiful.
In his recital Wednesday evening in Harris Hall, Irish pianist John O’Conor, who gave us some refreshingly artifice-free Beethoven last summer, applied a similar approach to Schubert. Not quite as compelling as his Beethoven, it still displayed his obvious pleasure in the music. What was missing was an ear for the key detail that was so appealing in his work last year.
He favored fleet tempos, but fast passages flitted past without internal emphasis, so they sounded like flurries of undifferentiated notes. The music bloomed best in slower passages. In the Sonata in A major, which opened the program, it was the lovely Andante. In the set of Four Impromptus, Op. 90, again it was the Andante that outshone the rest. After intermission, violinist David Halen, violist Stephen Wyrczynski, cellist Andrew Shulman and bassist Albert Laszlo found many more details to savor in their parts of the famous “Trout” Quintet than did O’Conor. He proved a fine accompanist but when he took the lead he seemed to have a different interpretation of the music than the strings did.
Tuesday’s Percussion Ensemble concert in Harris Hall, usually among the highlights of each season, focused a bit too much on long, pretentious, dated pieces such as John Cage’s “The City Wears a Slouch Hat” and not enough of the sheer fun of past evenings. “Slouch Hat” uses four actors to parody radio drama cliches of the 1940s, accompanied by some inventive percussion licks, but the stream of consciousness style left most of the audience puzzled, especially when preceded with non sequiturs voiced by Cage himself on a recording.
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Much better were the soloists. Justin A. Doute dazzled with his marimba solo piece, Scirocco, by Michael Burritts. A charming four-minute Henry Cowell miniature, Ostinato Pianissimo, featured the feathery touch of Nathan Sankary on xylophone. Flutist Nadine Asin, a faculty artist, often featured on this ensemble’s evenings, linked Debussy’s solo piece Syrinx with George Crumb’s haunting, theatrical “An Idyll for the Misbegotten” (which quotes from the Debussy piece). There is something primitive and raw about the music, as the percussionists responded to the amplified flute with increased agitation, finally subsiding stealthily.
Audiences at O’Conor’s recital Wednesday (and Simone Dinnerstein’s the week before) may have noticed a daunting array of microphones positioned on the Harris Hall stage between the piano and the hall. Turns out the audio recording program, which archives every concert, is experimenting with different microphones and placements, according to Matthew Loden, the festival’s general manager. These new mikes were suggested by representatives of Sennheiser, a sponsor that specializes in microphones and headphones. With permission of the artists, the students are comparing the results to improve the quality of their recordings and better understand
the ins and outs of recording techniques.