Aspen Musical Festival review: Atonal? Nothing to fear from Denk or Groop

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times

Running alongside the Aspen Music Festival’s “New Romantics” theme for this season, which focuses on modern works in a relatively accessible style, is a stealth addition — “Unabashedly Atonal.” The program describes this repertoire as “often written off as obscure, impenetrable, unpleasant, or simply noise.” Musicians could argue over the definition but the classical music audience usually just uses it to mean something like “harshly dissonant.”

Three of them were in this week’s concerts. The only one that qualified as “unpleasant” was a piece for a stage full of basses, piano and a giant box struck with a rubber hammer. The bassists, led by Edgar Meyer and Bruce Bansby, were overqualified to play this assault on the ears, the incessant pounding relieved only by a few seconds here and there of soft harmonies.

Other than that, there was nothing particularly scary about Ives’ “Concord” Sonata in the hands of Jeremy Denk, a pianist surely incomparable in this music. A longtime Ives champion, he showed zero fear in drawing out the individual lines and harmonies Wednesday in Harris Hall. Often gnarly, they always ultimately resolve harmonically.

Denk corralled Ives’ rambunctious musical portraits of authors he admired in the Concord transcendental school (Emerson, Hawthorne, the Alcotts, Thoreau) into a narrative that made perfect sense. The occasional cacophony only made the long stretches of quieter harmonies sound like a jazz pianist improvising transitions between songs.

As if that weren’t enough, Denk turned to J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” in the second half. He wasted no time, playing the opening “aria” with a strong forward pulse that still left room for subtleties. The first several of the 30 variations kicked off at a crack tempo. He moved from one to the next with hardly a pause, but the interpretations became ever more detailed and expansive. If some of the more florid passages splattered rather than spinning out cleanly, I often found myself catching my breath at his rhythmic spring, deft phrasing and effective use of dynamics. The ultimate return to the limpid “aria” was like pulling a boat from high seas into harbor.

Heard Tuesday in Harris Hall, Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht and Martin’s Der Cornet proved to be lush and rich, not harsh. Schoenberg pushed chromatic harmonies to the edge in this one, much like Wagner or Richard Strauss, a precursor to, rather than example of, atonality. Led by violinist David Halen the sextet of strings emphasized clarity, even delicacy, although it could have used more sweep leading to the emotional peaks.

The Martin song cycle is the sort of piece perfect for a summer-long music festival, mostly for its rarity, not that it’s all that challenging. Martin’s colorful but resolutely tonal writing for the 34-piece orchestra was delivered expressively under conductor Robert Spano’s baton. Mezzo soprano Monica Groop brought out the emotional richness lurking in the meandering vocal line by focusing on the poet Rilke’s evocative text. She was a pleasure to listen to.

Monday in Harris Hall, jazz guitarist and composer Bill Frisell provided live music with Bill Morrison’s extraordinary 2011 film, “The Great Flood,” which examines the Mississippi River flood of 1927. This historical event spurred the migration of rural southern African-Americans to northern cities, bringing with them their music and culture. Frisell’s score opens and closes with a jazz-inflected rendering of “Ol’ Man River,” the Jerome Kern anthem from “Show Boat,” cannily using elements of the song as springboards for his own pieces.

Each of those pieces accompanies a chapter in Morrison’s film, which blends archival black-and-white footage of the flood itself and cultural life along the Mississippi River from Louisiana and Alabama to Illinois, where the migration (traced artfully on vivid maps) led to Chicago blues and eventually, in Detroit, rhythm and blues. Work song informs chapters showing African-Americans sharecropping and doing the monotonous work of unloading cotton on docks. Up-tempo dance music brings a smile in a rapid-fire trip through the Sears catalog, which aptly reflects the popular culture of the times. Languid jazz ballads accompany mesmerizing scenes of rising flood waters, trees and houses dotting the vast landscape, and people rowing through it. A rather jaunty number comments wryly on the smiling, three-piece-suited politicians surveying the damage.

In performance, Frisell and his three musical collaborators, most notably the achingly beautiful sound of Ron Miles on cornet, were so evocative they would have been a delight to hear on their own. With the film, magic.

Lowell Liebermann’s 1996 opera “The Portrait of Dorian Gray” opened Thursday in the Wheeler Opera House. Tautly staged and generally well acted, it told Oscar Wilde’s complex story well. Michael Christie conducted the composer’s colorful orchestral writing with charm, but the vocal writing did no favors for the game cast until the last two or three scenes.

The second and final performance is Saturday night.

In the coming days

Pianist Joyce Yang and violinist Augustin Hadelich play mostly Latin-American music Saturday night in Harris Hall. Sunday afternoon it’s Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 with Robert Spano conducting. Monday the American Brass Quintet offers its annual recital, always a rewarding evening.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 20 years. His reviews appear twice a week in The Aspen Times.

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