Encores provide a needed dose of extra zip

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times

This was a good week for encores. Soloists the caliber of Stefan Jackiw, Alisa Weilerstein and Juho Pohjonen may have fallen a tad short of their best in their main programs, but the lagniappes at the end sure were memorable.

Jackiw in particular captured four and a half minutes of serenity and grace Wednesday evening in the music tent with his breathtaking traversal of the Largo from J.S. Bach’s E Major Sonata for Unaccompanied Violin. It followed a Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 2 in which conductor James Feddeck let the Philharmonic orchestra step on too many portions of his beautifully and sensitively rendered solo part.

As her encore, Weilerstein repeated the Sarabande from J.S.’s Suite No. 3 for Unaccompanied Cello in C major from the first half of her program Wednesday night, playing with even more intimate delicacy and warmth.

Tuesday night Pohjonen took a detour into the Baroque from an often heavy-handed recital of Romantic ballades, mining the ornate world of Couperin for his encore — a lovely, lavishly ornamented “L’exquise.”

Pianist Inon Barnatan topped off an exciting and well-constructed program Thursday with Mendelssohn’s Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, contrasting the sweet introductory melody with a stormy finish and relishing all the stops along the way. The lilt of its rondo theme echoed similar moments in the Schubert Piano Sonata in G major on first half of the program. Barnatan dispatched these phrases with a sly smile, emphasizing Schubert’s shifting style as it slipped from major to minor and soft to fiery.

J.S. Bach’s Toccata in E minor, played with winning resiliency and clarity, set the tone for the fugues that conclude both works in the second half. Barnatan invested Franck’s “Prelude, choral, et fugue” with staunch vigor, building to a big climax as the chorale segued into the fugue. He corralled the fast-moving jazzy syncopations and spiky melodic lines of Barber’s Piano Sonata, written for Vladimir Horowitz, as it finished with a modern stainless-steel vision of a fugue.

Matthias Pintscher’s “whirling tissue of light” was written for Barnatan and co-commissioned by the Aspen Music Festival, the Concertgebouw and Wigmore Hall in London (where he gave the premiere last fall). Expertly played, corruscating swirls of notes swept by, pooling into occasional eddies and moving from an enchanting, softly dissonant mist to harsher splashes. Its sense should come through with additional hearings.

Wednesday marked the second time in two weeks that a noted soloist provided one of the week’s highlights on the midweek orchestra concert. Jackiw triumphed in the delicious Prokofiev concerto, his slender violin tone singing its long, lyrical lines against chugging rhythms in the orchestra. Although Jackiw sometimes got out-forte-d in the energy of the outer movements, the glorious Andante Assai allowed the melodic line to wander uninhibited against quiet pizzicatos in the orchestra.

The concert opened with a vigorous and bracing rendition of John Adams’ “Short Ride in a Fast Machine,” five minutes of post-minimalist exuberance. (This festival programs far too little of Adams’ brilliant music, which would have fit perfectly into the summer’s theme of New Romantics.)

Weilerstein’s program of unaccompanied cello works promised much, but it got off to a rocky start with an unannounced juxtaposition of Britten’s short and harsh Tema “Sacher” and Osvaldo Golijov’s Omaramor, which detours through some scratchy moments of its own before setting a lovely Carlos Gardel tango tune. In Bach’s Suite No. 3 the prelude started off rough, but the Allemande finally settled into a lovely groove and richer sound. The final three movements were gripping for their delicacy. After intermission, the best moments of Kodaly’s Sonata for Unaccompanied Cello came when the composer let the folk melodies spin out. The connective tissue often grated.

Juho Pohjonen mystified me with a gung-ho approach to ballades by Grieg, Brahms and Chopin Tuesday night in Harris Hall. A ballade should be musical poetry, told in the abstract language of notes, chords and rhythm, but this pianist seemed intent on blazing through them as fast as he could. The four Chopin ballades hardly paused for breath. The faster, more dramatic sections made a wash of sound that often collapsed in a tumble rather than sparkling with energy and detail. Where was the poetry?

The Grieg was much better, each variation offering a variety of color, even tenderness. A dry-eyed approach to the four Brahms ballades avoided sentimentality but found little depth to compensate. The Baroque encore wove complex ornamentation with ease through Couperin’s “L’exquise.”

The highlight of the annual Percussion Ensemble concert Monday was Peter Schickele’s Sonata for Percussion No. 1 “Aspen,” written in 1996 when the composer was in residence here. Its charming 13 minutes featured jaunty tunes played on mallet instruments, as bells added vim to the sonic colors of delicately applied drums and tinkly percussion.

As usual the ensemble, conducted by Jonathan Haas, impressed with its musical chops. Varese’s percussion classic Ionisation found more depth than a simple drum assault. In music for Rita Blitt’s 25-minute film “Abyss of Time,” the shifting colors of Michael Udow’s score melded nicely with the artist’s splashy, daubed paintings. Percussion solo award winner Carly Yanuck, on tympani, relished the rhythmic complexity of Elliot Carter’s “Canaries,” the solo work more digestible without the composer’s often harrowing harmonic palette.

In the Coming Days

Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 and Coffee Cantata highlight Saturday night’s special event in Harris Hall with conductor Harry Bicket and faculty stars. Russian pianist Nicolai Lugansky plays the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Festival Orchestra Sunday, James Feddeck conducting. That evening the Opera Center’s final offering, Carmen, gets an unusual Sunday opening.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 20 years. His reviews appear Tuesdays and Saturdays in The Aspen Times.

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