Review: Spano, McGegan and raft of pianists lift Aspen Music Fest opening weekend | AspenTimes.com
Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

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Review: Spano, McGegan and raft of pianists lift Aspen Music Fest opening weekend

ASPEN – The first few days of the 2012 Aspen Music Festival demonstrated in sharp relief everything that makes this 71⁄2-week summer event what it is.

On opening night, three first-tier pianists rendered Gershwin piano music impressively with student ensembles. The podium’s most entertaining practitioner, Nicholas McGegan, led a lively chamber symphony program of Mendelssohn and Beethoven on Friday. The Festival Orchestra put the cap on the weekend when new music director Robert Spano knocked two of the 20th century’s most audience-friendly works out of the park, aided and abetted by pianist Garrick Ohlsson.

These were also Spano’s first official concerts as music director. Though he appeared here often last summer as director-designate, 2012 is the first season in which he had a hand in programming from the onset.

It was a busy weekend for pianists. The all-Gershwin program featured internationally known Inon Barnatan and Marc-Andre Hamelin and an emerging star in Conrad Tao. Tao is a product of the Aspen Music School, which currently has 650 students and is an integral part of the festival.

The programs also reflected this year’s theme. “Made in America” focuses on pieces written on U.S. soil or for U.S. performers, whether by homegrown composers or by visitors or immigrants. In a festival covering more than seven weeks, not every program can hew entirely to the theme, so the works are sprinkled here and there through the summer. But we got a strong dose of them in the opening days. Although Friday’s Beethoven and Mendelssohn have no connection to America, Yehudi Wyner’s Piano Concerto Chiavi in Mano, also on the dance card, certainly did, as did Sunday’s offerings. Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, which debuted it in 1909; Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra was commissioned by Serge Koussevitsky when he was conductor of the Boston Symphony, which debuted it in 1944.

Sunday’s concert began with “Blue Cathedral,” Jennifer Higdon’s evocative, colorfully scored 12-minute work from 2000. After the music reached a climax, it subsided gracefully to a haunting obbligato of water glasses and delicate percussion. That piece touches on another element destined to become part of the Aspen Music Festival texture. Spano has long championed a group of composers who write in a highly accessible idiom, which includes Higdon. In the Concerto for Orchestra, Spano found ideal tempos, spacious enough to let Bartok’s ideas unfold but taut enough to keep the pace moving unflaggingly. The second movement, “Game of Pairs,” featured the principals, who play in some of the world’s leading orchestras, in fleeting duets with the students playing alongside them, another Aspen moment. The finale’s majestic brass interjections brought things to an energetic close.

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Ohlsson jumped onto the back of Rachmaninoff’s wild and wooly Third Concerto and wrestled it into submission, emphasizing the piece’s architecture and irresistible sweep. Finely gauged pacing and seamless transitions from one section to the next made this an absorbing performance. If he whizzed past some of the details along the way, it was a small price to pay for such a muscular, broad-beamed triumph.

The sun shone Sunday, but as can happen in Aspen’s 2,050-seat Benedict Music Tent, Mother Nature provided her own obbligato on opening night. As several thunderstorms swept through during the second half, lightning and distant thunder added their effects. One thunderclap close to the tent punctuated the music dramatically, and heavy downpours drowned out whole paragraphs of the “Rhapsody in Blue.” The opening clarinet trill was inaudible, but in what we could hear, Hamelin showed a keen grasp of the piano part’s jazz nuances, fearlessly taken at breakneck tempo. It’s not how we usually hear this music, but Gershwin himself played it that fast on his famous piano rolls.

With similar ease with the jazz elements in the Concerto in F, Barnatan blazed through the flashy outer movements and lavished a tender bluesy touch to the Andante con moto in the middle. It was Tao, who just turned 18, who delivered the most arresting performance, attacking the Second Rhapsody with a lethal combination of power, rhythmic thrust, technical perfection and sheer joy. For his part Spano led nicely idiomatic readings.

McGegan uses his whole body and witty gestures to coax vivid performances. In Friday’s concert he drew a full measure of rhythmic vitality from Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 2 and Symphony No. 8 and Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor. His dance-like motions shaped phrases gracefully and, in the Mendelssohn, found eloquence in tunes with the orchestra that pianist Robert Levin never quite brought to life. Levin did better in Wyner’s 2004 concerto, an arresting mash-up of jazz gestures, Yiddish music and dissonant odysseys that would call to mind the music of Charles Ives if he had grown up Jewish and half a century later. Again the orchestra delivered the better phrasing and all-round finer musicality.

Saturday’s Chamber Music concerts, which showcase mostly faculty artists, usually draw minimal crowds at 4:30 p.m., but this time, at 8 p.m., a good audience in the 500-seat Harris Hall came for a mixed bag of music mostly by late 20th century composers. The highlight was a two-piano finale featuring Wu Han and Anton Nel galloping through the high-wire act that is Lutasklawksi’s Variations on a Theme of Paganini, which outdoes Rachmaninoff in both dazzle and brevity. And they killed with Bolcom’s ragtime-infused, whirlwind, nonstop, too-much-fun showpiece The Serpent’s Kiss.

Both pianists from that Saturday finale are in action this week. Wu Han and her husband, cellist David Finckel, offer a varied program in their always highly anticipated recital at 8 p.m. Tuesday in Harris Hall. Anton Nel takes on unjustly forgotten music of Edward MacDowell, who some regard as America’s first great composer, on the Aspen Philharmonic program at 6 p.m. Thursday under conductor Mei-Ann Chen. McGegan is back to lead a Baroque program later that evening in Harris Hall. And the mercurial Vladimir Feltsman plays the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 5 on Friday’s Chamber Symphony program in the tent, Jane Glover conducting.