Orchestra, singers end festival with outsized Gurre-Lieder | AspenTimes.com

Orchestra, singers end festival with outsized Gurre-Lieder

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado

ASPEN ” The Aspen Music Festival likes to finish big, and it doesn’t get much bigger than Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder, an epic saga of big passions, death, despair and, ultimately, blazing sunshine in the finale. In Sunday’s final concert of 2008, conductor David Zinman marshaled an oversized orchestra, five solo singers, a speaker and two choruses over nearly two hours of hyper-Romantic music, and delivered goose bumps.

The story, based on a 19th-century Danish novel about an ill-fated affair between King Waldemar and Tove, explores the dramatic and psychological effects. The most riveting moment came from Finnish mezzo-soprano Lilli Paasikivi, whose long peroration as the Wood-dove concluded Part I with stunning singing. With breathtaking accuracy, she showed enormous power, wrapped in a glow of satiny softness, as she narrated the death of Tove.

Also impressive in his single moment was American tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, who delivered the Jester’s song with his trademark clarity and character. Oregon-born bass Gustav Andreassen, in his brief moment as the Peasant expressing fear and horror over the proceedings in the story, also made a strong impact with his deep lyric sound.

The big role, however, is Waldemar, and Swedish tenor Per Lindskog was inaudible for long stretches to anyone not sitting in the first several rows of the Benedict Music Tent, filled to capacity for the occasion. Sitting in Row B, I heard some beautifully nuanced singing, but even in that favored location whole phrases were covered by the augmented Aspen Festival Orchestra.

Soprano Measha Brueggergosman also had to battle to be heard over the orchestra, but she shaped some gorgeous phrases as Tove, especially in the song in which she declared her love for Waldemar.

The orchestra, however, is the main protagonist in this work. Expanded to include a phalanx of harps, a gang of Wagner tubas and even a contra-bass trombone, it flutters and groans, lolls and gallops, and issues cascades of lush sounds. This is pre-serial Schoenberg, more reminiscent of Wagner and not remotely dissonant, and the payoff came with the big finale when the women of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra Chorus finally join the men for the final piece, “Behold the Sun.” They filled the edges of the chorus deck above the stage, and when that wasn’t enough to accommodate them all they filed out from the wings onto the stage and the area in front of it. They made a glorious sound. The chorus has some problems making their text understood, however, especially the men, joined by members of the U.S. Army Chorus, portraying Waldemar’s men. But in the end, it was all about the sound, and it was glorious.

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Friday night in the Tent, pianist Jonathan Biss played Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 with a delicate touch and fine articulation, but he and conductor Xian Zhang seemed to have different interpretations on tempo. She and the Aspen Chamber Symphony kept a steady beat while he rushed the finishes of fast runs, which gave the first movement an out-of-phase feeling until he got to the piano’s last phrases before handing over control to the orchestra. Those ended with a flourish. The languid Andante sailed smoothly, and the finale bounced along pleasantly.

Zhang, associate conductor of the New York Philharmonic since 2005, shaped vivid performances on her own of Stravinsky’s Divertimento and Richard Strauss’ Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme suite. With music derived from his Tchaikovsky-pastiche ballet, Stravinsky’s light-hearted, easy-listening work made a fine opener. The Strauss suite, derived from incidental music that contained many of the same musical gestures (if not the actual music) found in his operas “Der Rosenkavalier” and “Ariadne auf Naxos,” featured concertmaster Bing Wang in several distinctively played solos.

Marc-Andre Hamelin concluded his piano recital Saturday night at Harris Hall with a dazzling finger-busting arrangement by Godowsky on the Johann Strauss waltz “Wine, Women and Song,” which most would consider a nice encore. What do you do after that? The Canadian pianist asked the audience to “forgive the sacrilege” and played “the Diabelli variation Beethoven never wrote,” a cute play on “Chopsticks.”

That sort of humor infused his quirky program, which included two of his own etudes, one a gloss on a Tchaikovsky lullaby for left hand only, and Alex Weissenberg’s 1982 work, “Sonata in a State of a Jazz.” The latter seemed inspired by Bill Evans’ “Conversations with Myself” recordings. Although Hamelin’s playing lacked the surge and flow of real jazz and did not clarify the layers of the music, it was a fascinating and complex 20 minutes of jazz-classical fusion.

Much better were sprightly performances of two Haydn sonatas and a short Chopin set of the Barcarolle in F-sharp and the Ballade No. 3, delivered with gravitas.

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