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Aspen Music Festival Review: Whether 19th, 20th or 21st century, isn’t it romantic?

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times

Every year the Aspen Music Festival chooses a theme for its eight-week summer season of orchestral, chamber and vocal concerts. This year it’s “The New Romantics,” no doubt a response to the cold reception much of last-season’s emphasis on some of Benjamin Britten’s thornier works got from longtime attendees and donors. The topic does open the door to 20th- and 21st-century works composed in a more accessible style, alongside ripe and familiar music from the actual romantic era of the 19th century.

Each of last weekend’s major concerts offered enticing examples on both scores. Christopher Theofanidis’ “Rainbow Body,” which dates from 2000, opened Sunday’s Festival Orchestra program with crowd-pleasing splashes of rich musical color. World premieres of likable works by Mason Bates and Somei Satoh were the highlights of a Saturday recital by violinist Anne Akiko Meyers and pianist Anton Nel. And the first half of the Aspen Chamber Symphony program Friday included a 1963 Schnittke piece that makes 12-tone music sound downright folksy. It created a fine contrast with a splendid Schumann piece for four horns and orchestra from the peak of the romantic era.

A 12th-century melody by Hildegard von Bingen served as the seed for Theofanidis’ piece, which stretches and develops the tune into a mesmerizing array of tonal textures and harmonic intricacy. It builds gradually into an ecstatic climax. The broad gestures and thundering finish are a long way from Bingen’s monophony, but the rousing shouts from the string players at the climax could stand in for a hallelujah or two. It’s easy to hear why this has become one of the most often played contemporary pieces. It was orchestral music on a grand scale, and it held the audience for its 13 minutes.



The centerpiece of Sunday’s program was Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, “Emperor,” certainly a pinnacle of the early years of the romantic era. Yefim Bronfman executed it with precision and an eye toward deftness, tossing off crystalline trills and rapid-fire runs with plenty of expression. Conductor James Gaffigan kept the pace moving quickly, and the orchestra responded with playing that had guts and clarity.

Gaffigan seemed intent in whipping up as much excitement as possible in the Dvorak Symphony No. 9 “From the New World,” from the opposite end of the romantic era. It had some sharply defined sections, but they could have strung together more naturally. There were fine individual moments, especially a languid English horn solo played by Melissa Hooper — with a bit more urgency than most do — and impressive work by the horn section.




The world premieres Saturday night, both written for Meyers, could not have been more different. Satoh’s trance-like “Sange” hung strands of simple melody motionless in the air, the piano and violin occasionally intertwining to introduce complexity. It created a pure, clean world for us to inhabit for its 10 minutes. Bates’ Suite for Solo Violin explored vernacular American tropes, including syncopated rhythms, harmonies and familiar-sounding melodic turns. In its three movements totaling 15 minutes, the energy never flagged and Meyers and Nel clearly were enjoying the vigorous interplay. Both pieces drew warm receptions.

The remainder of an eclectic program offered sonatas by Mozart and Ravel and a pair of tangos by Astor Piazzola, all with the intoxicating sonics of Meyers’ “Ex Vieuxtemps” Guarneri, a violin able to produce everything from wisps of sound to lusty power, as if amplified. Meyers and Nel played immaculately, but one could hope for more emotional intensity, especially in the Piazzola and Ravel works.

Nicholas McGegan brought his trademark enthusiasm and brio to bear on Friday’s Chamber Orchestra program. Schumann’s Concert Piece for Four Horns had the benefit of three principals in leading orchestras — John Zirbel (Montreal), Andrew Bain (Los Angeles) and Kevin Rivard (San Francisco Opera) — and they made a charismatic sound. None, including their student compatriot Alexander Kienle, seemed to bobble a single note of the difficult and broad-beamed music.

Schnittke’s “Sonata No. 1 for Violin, Strings, and Harpsichord” was written as a sort of musical raspberry to Soviet apparatchiks. “Romantic” could describe the heroic boldness of defying the Soviets, and indeed it did result in Schittke’s arrest. Violinist Daniel Hope, who worked with Schnittke for several years before the composer’s death in 1998, brought an impressive range of tonal colors to the solo role while McGegan applied his ebullient approach, infused with Baroque style, to the spiky score, relying on the lively rhythms to carry the thrust. Although the music had its harsh moments, the highly stylized folk songs in the third movement and the sharp wit of a finale built on “La Cucaracha” gave the audience something to latch onto.

McGegan established a breathless pace right from the start for Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony. The orchestra not only kept up but managed to articulate all the phrasing cleanly and with mercurial style.

Not to miss in the coming days

Actual (not modern) romantics dominate this week’s chamber-music docket. Tonight, the Emerson String Quartet assays two of the pinnacles of the era — Beethoven’s “Quartet in C-sharp minor Op. 131” and Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” Quartet. Schubert also is the focus of Marc-Andre Hamelin’s piano recital Wednesday, offering both the A major and B-flat major sonatas. And for their annual two-piano recital in the music tent, Misha and Cipa Dichter mix some Rachmaninoff (a 20th-century romantic) into a program of Mendelssohn, Saint-Saens and Dvorak. Friday’s Chamber Symphony program, conducted by Osmo Vanska, surrounds the Grieg Piano Concerto (and Joyce Yang) with music by Steven Stucky and Carl Nielsen.