Review: Weilerstein, Shaham provide electricity in weekend’s big orchestra concerts
July 28, 2015
Let's face it, Alisa Weilerstein can do no wrong. A fixture at the Aspen Music Festival since she was a preteen, the cellist blazed through Prokofiev's Symphony Concerto on Sunday afternoon with consummate skill and powerful intent. The jaw-dropping 40 minutes topped off a weekend that included Gil Shaham playing Bach and a world premiere of a string quartet.
Spinning a lyrical web around a soft tread in the orchestra, Weilerstein began the Prokofiev piece by emphasizing the cello's singing qualities. The extensive cadenza that ushers in the second movement upped the ante, using every inch of the instrument's fingerboard for explosive musical gestures. Then, playing against a propulsive orchestra, the cello eventually insists on broad lyrical phrases. The finale turns the kaleidoscope on a theme and variations, the cello playing ever more difficult and demanding double-stops, triple-stops and even a harmonized melody against a drone at one point, climbing ever more difficult terrain before reaching the summit in the final pages.
Through it all, as impressive as Weilerstein's technical command was, even more satisfying was how she made it all into an instrument spinning a tale, unfolding a saga. Conductor Ludovic Morlot kept the orchestra harnessed to the same train of thought, alternately providing rhythmic propulsion, soft pillows of chords and charging melodic gestures.
She finished off the concert with an encore, unexpected after all that exertion, an impeccably nimble account of the bouree from Bach's Unaccompanied Cello Suite No. 3.
In the first half of the concert, Morlot led a compelling performance of Stravinsky's complete Petrushka ballet score, lavishing special attention on instrumental colors. The crowd scenes of "Shrovetide Fair" gave way to the magical wisps of "The Magic Trick" and a lively Russian dance (the piano playing a lead role). All the woodwinds, horns and trumpets articulated the emotional struggles of the puppets with charm, especially the dippy little trumpet waltz tune played by Kevin Cobb. Shifting rhythms and flashy solos whizzed past with only a few bumps, and after all that, the resigned shrug of an ending hit just the right beat.
As it would be uncouth to keep a French conductor entirely from French music, Morlot sketched a leisurely and sonically soothing "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun," with principal flute Nadine Asin voicing Debussy's serpentine opening melody with gentle persistence.
The weekend started Friday evening with another nicely nuanced and responsive performance in the tent by the Aspen Chamber Symphony. Providing star qualities, conductor Jeffrey Kahane brought the music of Bach, Shostakovich and Haydn to life with tremendous verve and a welcome freshness. Shaham provided extra wattage with brilliant playing in the opening work, J.S. Bach's Violin Concerto No. 1.
The violinist's usual grace, tonal precision and deft phrasing synchronized perfectly with Kahane's brisk pace. The unanimity of purpose allowed for delicate moments that breathed between phrases without losing momentum. This is what chamber music is all about, but you don't always hear it happen with a full orchestra.
Audience response was ecstatic. After the fourth curtain call, it seemed as if Shaham might not play an encore. But he responded to vocal pleas from the crowd with the Gavotte en rondeau from the Partita No. 3, a marvel of dextrous technique, sublime phrasing and tasteful elaboration.
The Shostakovich Chamber Symphony followed, which was actually the composer's String Quartet No. 4 orchestrated brilliantly by Rudolf Barshai, who played violin in the quartet's premiere. It starts moodily and ends quietly but not before reaching a terrifying climax.
Rain dampened but did not totally drown out the Bach and Shostakovich. The tattoo on the tent's roof almost made the famous opening timpani roll redundant in Haydn's Symphony No. 103 (aptly nicknamed "Drumroll"). The conductor and orchestra caught the deft interweaving of phasing and dancing rhythms, the rain finally let up midway through, and it finished with high spirits.
Saturday's chamber-music program in Harris Hall hit several high points. Soprano Esther Heidemann, a regular at the Metropolitan Opera, filled the room with creamy sound and colorful articulation in Szymanowski's "Word Songs," with an augmented Aspen Contemporary Ensemble conducted by Sydney Hodkinson to comment on the Polish imagery. Violinist Sylvia Rosenberg and violist James Dunham, two of the bright lights among Aspen veterans, kept the reins tight on Mozart's warm and fuzzy Duo for Violin and Viola in G major, allowing the piece to flow with purpose. Violinist Naoko Tanaka settled comfortably into the plush sofa that is Chausson's Concert in D major, abetted by pianist Rita Sloan and an all-student string quartet.
Hodkinson's String Quartet No. 7 premiered on the Jupiter String Quartet's program Saturday evening in Harris Hall. The piece is most absorbing in its second half, a spooky passacaglia with all sorts of colorful articulations and sonorities to liven it up before it glides to a gentle finish. The first half, marked "feroce," might need further hearings to sort out its purpose, other than as a foil for the lovely passacaglia.
The Jupiter, which has become an Aspen regular, shone most brightly on the opening work, Haydn's String Quartet in B-flat major "Sunrise." With a breathtaking sense of unity, the instrumentalists made the music bob and weave in an intricate dance that kept it bubbling merrily. The serious effort that went into the Brahms String Quartet No. 1 in C minor was no less in sync, but there could have been more leavening of the unrelenting melancholy.
Not to miss in coming days
The American Brass Quintet, whose members occupy principal positions in the major orchestras here, includes a world premiere 15-minute work by Robert Paterson in its recital tonight in Harris Hall. Pieces range from Elizabethan consort music to a brass band finale with an extra quintet, horns and percussion. Augustin Hadelich, who triumphed earlier in the Beethoven violin concerto, joins Joyce Yang for a recital Thursday in Harris Hall. Those who choose that concert over opening night that same evening of the Opera Theater's double bill of "The Classical Style" and "Cows of Apollo" would be able to catch the second performance of the opera Saturday evening.
Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 21 years. His reviews appear twice a week in The Aspen Times.