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An octet, a pianist and a brass quintet

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times

Three highlights from the first part of this week at the Aspen Music Festival reflect the variety of music-making that fits into the genre we call classical music. All they have in common is extraordinary performances of beautifully crafted pieces.

In chronological order, we have a first-team roster of faculty musicians coming together for a vivid performance of the Schubert Octet, an A-list pianist bringing his own glosses to one of the great concertos and superb playing from the American Brass Quintet (and friends) in music of the 16th century.

Oh, and there was also a world premiere for orchestra by an American composer in his early 30s making his mark and a dazzling rendition of a 2006 work by a veteran American composer in her mid-70s.

The Schubert Octet topped off the regular chamber-music recital Monday evening in Harris Hall, displaying the formidable talents of musicians whom longtime concertgoers in Aspen have learned to anticipate with relish. Insiders know that whenever they see Adele Anthony and Ellen dePasquale (violins), James Dunham (viola), Darrett Adkins (cello), Bruce Bansby (bass), Joaquin Valdepenas (clarinet), Per Hannevold (bassoon) and John Zirbel (horn) on the list of artists, it will be worth hearing.

In the octet’s hourlong running time, each had plenty of opportunity to show what they could do, and it was jaw-dropping in its musical clarity, precision, buoyancy and sheer life.

In the octet’s hourlong running time, each had plenty of opportunity to show what they could do, and it was jaw-dropping in its musical clarity, precision, buoyancy and sheer life. As an ensemble, they qualified as an embryonic symphony orchestra in their range of expressiveness and richness of sound. The marches were stirring, the adagio a showpiece for Valdepenas’ floating clarinet sound, the Scherzo brilliant, the minuet graceful.

Jonathan Biss, the piano soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, the centerpiece of Wednesday evening’s Aspen Philharmonic concert in the tent, clearly had a different idea from most pianists of how this should go. The opening measures, in which the piano plays alone, quietly, before the orchestra enters, also quietly, felt almost hesitant, as if the piano were asking an impertinent question.

Conducting the all-student orchestra, festival music director Robert Spano favored slower-than-usual tempos. (What is it with conductors drawing out the pace this year? It seems to be happening often.) But he got graceful playing from the ensemble, and it fit with Biss’ approach. One could quibble with the deftness of his trills or the extensive use of pedal in the piano’s many rapid runs, but he had an idea of where this music was going.

Biss’ extensive first-movement cadenza (it wasn’t Beethoven’s) roamed freely into harmonic and formal territory that could be seen as anachronistic, but it had a freshness and flair for the dramatic that Beethoven might have loved. The slow movement ached with yearning, and the finale, slow-paced as it was, still had enough rhythmic bite when it revved up, providing the needed contrast with moments of repose.

Later Wednesday evening in Harris Hall, the American Brass Quintet rolled out several of first trumpet Raymond Mase’s well-crafted arrangements of the music of such 16th-century composing giants as Gabrieli and Josquin des Prez.

They started with three utterly charming madrigals by the Italian composer Marenzio, opened the second half with five wonderfully polyphonic chansons by Josquin and finished with two magnificent Gabrieli canzoni. The Kyodai Brass Quintet, on a fellowship in Aspen this summer, joined seamlessly with the American Brass Quintet for the Gabrieli. Arrayed across the stage in reverberant Harris Hall, it was easy to imagine we were listening in Venice’s Basilica di San Marco.

Three pieces written in the past 62 years contrasted with this ancient music. The most recent (2006), “Copperwave,” by Joan Tower, spun out 12 minutes of energetic, rhythmic and harmonically piquant music that fascinated and embraced the audience in equal parts. The American Brass Quintet’s playing focused the musical lines clearly and brought out the dance-like feel of the final pages.

The newest piece of the week was Adam Schoenberg’s “Bounce,” the world premiere. A 10-minute joyride for orchestra, it kept the percussion section busy with mallet-instrument interjections, cymbal crashes and bass-drum thuds against a breathless volleyball match as the rest of the orchestra tossed musical ideas from one part of the ensemble to another. The slower central section sounded almost restful, with its small, minimalist gestures. Throughout, although the meter seemed to change every few bars from two beats to three to four, it sounded so natural that Spano’s baton was the only evidence of this asymmetry.

Not to miss in the coming days

Speaking of A-list soloists, violinist Gil Shaham and cellist Alisa Weilerstein return for two lushly Romantic concertos. Shaham takes on the Bruch in this evening’s chamber-orchestra program, Ludovic Morlot conducting, and Weilerstein puts bow to the Elgar on Sunday, Leonard Slatkin wielding the baton. Both concerts promise a rousing finish, tonight’s ending with Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3 and Sunday’s with Janacek’s brilliant Sinfonietta.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about Aspen Music Festival concerts for 19 years. His reviews appear in The Aspen Times twice a week.


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