Review: Shaham and festival orchestra dazzle with Tchaikovsky Concerto | AspenTimes.com

Review: Shaham and festival orchestra dazzle with Tchaikovsky Concerto

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Whatever possessed violinist Gil Shaham, conductor David Zinman and the Aspen Festival Orchestra Sunday afternoon, they ought to bottle it and sell it as a magic elixir. In their hands the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto sprang to life with immediacy, freshness and superb articulation. The vivid, compelling performance left a rapt Benedict Music Tent audience breathless.

It would not have happened except that Janine Jansens, the scheduled soloist, canceled earlier in the week. Shaham jumped in at the last minute to save the day, even though it meant driving back to Aspen Saturday night from Vail after playing with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Shaham met the daunting technical demands of the opening movement of the Tchaikovsky with demonic glee, but more amazingly he turned every phrase into something utterly natural and almost conversational. (For once the applause at the end of the movement was entirely justified.) That element reached a peak in the slow middle movement, which he played muted and hushed, with silken tone and achingly supple phrasing. The byplay with clarinetist Joaquin Valdepenas and flutist Nadine Asin entered some higher realm of communication. The rapid-fire finale went through its twists and turns, slowing for breath occasionally before firing forward with complete unanimity.

That Shaham throws himself into musical collaboration was evident from his body language, moving closer to the center of the orchestra most of the time, responding to their brief solos by turning and smiling to the players. I don’t think I have ever seen quite so many grins on the musicians’ faces. They knew they were on a roll.

If the concerto stole the show, it had a big challenge to meet from Aspen’s first hearing of John Harbison’s new and emotionally wrenching Symphony No. 5, which preceded it. Baritone Nathan Gunn and mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke brought golden sound and impeccable diction to the three poems that Harbison uses to tell the Orpheus and Eurydice story.

The piece begins with a long baritone solo, Czeslaw Mislos’ telling of Orpheus’ story in modern terms (vehicle traffic at the entrance to Hades, elevators to hell, etc.). It occupies nearly half of the piece’s uninterrupted 35 minutes. Next comes “Relic,” a lament for Eurydice by Louise Glück. Harbison’s music uses the resources of a modern orchestra to create sound worlds that grab the psyche and the soul. Finally, in Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Sonnet to Orpheus II, 13,” the voices sing the same words and mostly the same melody, but just enough apart to convey how Orpheus’ failings have torn the principals apart.

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Harbison’s jazz-tinged song cycle, North and South, for mezzo-soprano and small ensemble added vibrant color to a fine afternoon of chamber music in one of two excellent concerts in Harris Hall on Saturday.

Julliard mezzo-soprano Carolyn Sproule sang Harbison’s music with style and accuracy, and Sydney Hodkinson conducted with flair. Also on that program, clarinetist Burt Hara, violinist Espen Lilleslatten and cellist Darrett Adkins invested Ingolf Dahl’s neo-classsical Concerto a tre with an irresistible sprightliness. Finally, pianist Jeffrey Kahane and Dvorak’s let-it-all-hang-out Piano Quintet in A major lit a spark under the Takacs Quartet that was missing from the quartet’s own recital earlier in the week.

In the evening concert, the husband-and-wife team of cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han sandwiched two big, heart-on-sleeve Romantic Era cello sonatas around a much more intimate, smaller romantic piece written for them by longtime Aspen composer George Tsontakis. Called Mirror Image, the music constantly interweaves the two instruments in the composer’s cheeky style. The musicians reveled in the interplay.

To open the program, they dived headlong into a jaunty, swashbuckling performance of the Mendelssohn Cello Sonata No. 2 in D major. Later they turned up the juice on the effulgent Rachmaninoff Cello Sonata in G minor. For an encore, their daughter Lillian, who had been turning pages, lent a delicate touch and refined phrasing to match her dad’s in a Tchaikovsky Nocturne. Mom turned pages for her.

The Chamber Symphony program Friday in the tent gave Aspen its first hearing of festival president Alan Fletcher’s Clarinet Concerto. Soloist Michael Rusinek, principal clarinet of the Pittsburgh Symphony, floated the piece’s soft, yearning phrases in a gorgeous tone. Rusinek is a major talent who can coax a range of colors from the instrument. As a composer Fletcher favors a gentle, lyrical, harmonically unchallenging style that uses tonal color for expression.

Those colors were the best thing about this concerto. Conductor Andrey Boreyko led a restrained performance, as Rusinek reeled off the occasional difficult turns with ease. Although the same upward-sweeping gestures may appear a few times too often in the 20-minute piece, it makes a nice vehicle for the clarinet and certainly is grateful to the ear.

Next on the program: Boreyko and pianist Vladimir Feltsman seemed to be playing a different composer in a puzzling performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor. The orchestra was all suave and supple while Feltsman went for a note-perfect, rigid interpretation, the music more like a military man standing ramrod straight than the lithe dancer Mozart had in mind. Un-Mozartean flourishes characterized the cadenza, and it didn’t help that several persistent magpies squawked through the proceedings just outside the open tent. Feltsman was overheard to joke backstage, “It was Mozart, with a touch of Messiaen.” True in more than ways than one.

A haunting performance of Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 “Unfinished” concluded the concert. Conductor Boeyko preceded it, without pause, with Ives’ The Unanswered Question, which only accentuated a sense of foreboding in the quiet bass line that opens the symphony.

Adele Anthony, Shaham’s violin-playing wife, took Jansens’ other assignment, an “Evening with…” in the tent on Thursday. She opened matters with solid work on Bach’s solo Partita No. 2 in D minor. Pianist Inon Barnatan followed with a remarkably agile and magical solo performance of Ravel’s suite Gaspard de la nuit, and they finished the concert with a robust run-through together of Franck’s outsized Sonata in A major.

Not to miss this week: If anyone can invigorate the familiar strains of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos it’s conductor Nicholas McGegan, aided and abetted by a raft of top faculty artists. They play them all tonight and Wednesday in special events at Harris Hall. On Wednesday in the tent, David Robertson leads the Concert Orchestra in Debussy’s La Mer. And on Thursday the Opera Theater Center opens with a benefit performance of Puccini’s La Boheme for those who can pony up $1,000 for the evening’s entertainment. Saturday’s reprise will be at regular prices and simulcast free into Wagner Park. There’s a third performance Monday.

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