Aspen Music Festival review: Tao stretches boundaries from Mozart to Glass |

Aspen Music Festival review: Tao stretches boundaries from Mozart to Glass

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times

Conrad Tao’s Aspen Music Festival solo program Saturday night looked provocative, with two of Mozart’s quirkier solo piano works alternating with 21st-century music by Pierre Boulez, Philip Glass and (a world premiere) Felipe Lara. Liszt’s form-shattering, single-movement Piano Sonata in B minor capped off the menu after intermission.

Tao took it a step further, taking his own interpretations of Mozart and Liszt into unexpected directions, making for a compelling piano recital.

Aspen Music Festival audiences met Tao in 2006 as a 12-year-old prodigy on both piano and violin. At 23 he has blossomed into an internationally recognized composer and pianist (playing barefoot on this occasion) who can coax a stunning array of colors from the keyboard. His musical intellect is willing to push boundaries to encourage us to think deeply about what we are hearing.

He led off with the premiere, Lara’s seven-minute “Injust” intonations, and finished the first half with a superbly moody and atmospheric Étude No. 16 by Philip Glass.

Lara’s music opens with a middle D dampened by the pianist’s left hand and allowed to resonate while waves of intricate passages swirl around it. As the D recurs periodically, the patterns unfurl differently, suggesting “natural” intervals on an instrument tuned to avoid them. Without pause, Tao launched into Mozart’s Prelude and Fugue in C major. Mozart was famous in his time for improvising on this contrapuntal form. Tao managed to suggest an extemporizing style while maintaining the Baroque structure.

Boulez’s craggy, sharp-edged dissonances, executed with sparkling technical brilliance, somehow made an appropriate lead-in to Mozart’s Piano Sonata in A major. Although it starts innocently enough with a set of variations that become increasingly idiosyncratic, and a deceptively innocent minuet, Mozart’s sonata detours into the exotic (for the time) in the famous Turkish March. Sharp ears might have caught Tao increasingly sneaking in his own ornamentations. The playing was anything but Mozart-classic. If my ears were not deceiving me it was downright Liszt-like.

Tao’s kaleidoscopic approach to the actual Liszt sonata, already a work that would have unsettled mid-19th-century ears, pushed every phrase to an extreme. The soft, gentle sections emerged with cuddly warmth, surrounded by outbursts of multiple-forte passion that threatened to dislodge the piano mechanism, sometimes sacrificing clarity for terror-instilling clangor. The magic of this performance, for me, was in Tao’s handling of the transitions, which exerted a tidal pull that did not quit.

After that dark storm, an encore, Scarlatti’s Sonata in A major K.208, a four-minute work of intimate sunniness, let Tao, and everyone else, catch their breath.

At Friday night’s Aspen Chamber Orchestra concert in the tent, conductor Nicholas McGegan paused briefly before the finale of Schubert’s Symphony No. 9. He glanced around at the musicians arrayed before him and rubbed his hands together in anticipation. He conducted a couple of silent upbeats to the Allegro vivace finale, the effect being like firing off a starter’s gun. The orchestra came out of the blocks like a row of sprinters.

To build momentum in his Symphony No. 9, Schubert uses repeated phrases. The musicians’ challenge is to give each return a different color, deftly shading dynamics or tone to make the engine rev. In this performance those subtleties showed up from the top. Once the first-movement Allegro kicked into gear, there was no stopping its forward movement, and without losing its poise. The Andante con moto put the emphasis on “moto” without sacrificing its legato elegance, and the Scherzo sped by with gazelle-like fluidity.

Conducting without a baton, McGegan communicated what was needed with facial expressions, dancelike body movements and graceful hand gestures. No conductor radiates the joy in music quite like McGegan does, and the musicians of this orchestra — the A-list professionals in principal’s seats and the students flanking them alike — responded alertly with 10 minutes of propulsive music in that finale.

The cohesiveness and rhythmic clarity was a team effort. Joseph Pereira landed the timpani beats with exactly the right urgency, and the brass put a silvery edge to their interjections. McGegan, rotating his conducting arm like a third-base coach waving in the winning run, ratcheted up the momentum to bring the finale, and the concert, to a satisfying close.

Tempo and rhythm played a less positive role in performances of Robert Levin’s completion of Mozart’s Concerto for Violin and Piano in D major. Levin’s tendency to rush the ends of phrases in his piano playing kept tilting the rhythmic seesaw in both works. Concertmaster Robert Chen rendered the violin part in the concerto well, and the orchestra made its music dance along with McGegan, who also led a effervescent opener in Mozart’s Overture to “Die Zauberflöte.”

Individual soloists provided the brightest spots in Sunday’s Aspen Festival Orchestra program. Pianist Yefim Bronfman invested Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major with his usual intellectual acumen and emotional insight, not to mention breathtaking control of dynamics and touch. The most memorable moment came in the delicious piano-cello duet in the third movement Andante, principal cellist Desmond Hoebig weaving the gorgeous melody as Bronfman threaded delicate commentary around it.

Nadine Asin’s extended flute solo, suitably exotic and languorous, wove its own magic at the center of Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloé” Suite No. 2, and led the large woodwind section’s impressive contributions to the proceedings. Conductor Michael Stern kept the pace nicely, and generated powerful climaxes, but couldn’t quite achieve the Gallic transparency in the best performance of this work.

The opening piece, Britten’s “Sinfonia da Requiem,” also had its moments of beauty in a performance that avoided any excesses.

Saturday afternoon’s chamber music olio featured a lithe, muscular and impressively unified Schumann Piano Quartet in E-flat major, pianist Marc-André Hamelin providing a vital pulse and the string trio of Masao Kawasaki (violin), Beth Guterman Chu (viola) and Michael Mermagen (cello) the warm sound.

Three charming modern works preceded. Composer Donald Crockett conducted the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble in his jittery, percussion-infused “Whistling in the Dark.” The violin duo of Paul Cantor and his student, Alejandro Valdepeñas, had fun with the jabs and inside jokes that abound in Giancarlo Latta’s “Watch and Learn.” And in Sutermeister’s sprightly 1949 Serenade No. 1 Alejandro’s dad, Joaquin, traded light-hearted musical gestures on clarinet with Kevin Cobb on trumpet, Per Hannevold on bassoon and fellow clarinetist J.J. Koh.


The don’t-miss event of the week is McGegan’s Baroque Evening in Harris Hall Thursday evening. Asin (flute), Alexander Kerr (violin) and Anton Nel (piano) are the soloists for Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, and William Hagen solos on Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor, in a lineup that includes Handel and Purcell, too. Wednesday is a big day for Brahms fans. Hamelin takes an at-bat with the Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor in the 6 p.m. Aspen Philharmonic concert in the tent, and the elegant violinist Stefan Jackiw plays all three of the violin sonatas with pianist Anna Polonsky in Harris Hall at 8:30 p.m.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 23 years. His reviews appear in The Aspen Times on Tuesdays and Saturdays.

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