Harris Hall gets steamy with Piazzolla’s tango opera
August 17, 2015
Ripe, sultry voices laid atop a brilliant, haunting tango score by Astor Piazzolla lifted the temperature inside Harris Hall several degrees Tuesday evening. "Maria de Buenos Aires," the composer's operatic homage to his native city, got an alluring performance from two young singers, a resonant-voiced narrator, a stylish bandoneón soloist and a 10-piece ensemble, mostly students, captained by violinist David Halen, concertmaster of the St. Louis Symphony.
They got the music's feeling right, and produced one of the triumphs of the season. Scott Terrell, winner of the first conducting prize at the festival and now conductor of the Lexington Philharmonic, got a distinctive bite from the rhythms. Sonorities picked up piquancy, and things moved along smoothly. If that last ounce of raunchiness was missing, the gentler moments were exquisitely done.
The splendid voices included mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall in the title role. Clad in a slinky black gown and a blood-red shawl that she shifted and re-tied for each song, she invested Piazzolla's sinuous melodies with low-voiced richness and definition. Baritone Luis Alejandro Orozco, as an itinerant gaucho, sang the story of María with solidity shaded with a musky masculinity. Enrique E. Andrade, his chocolate timbre both supple and scary, caught the subtle rhythms of the speaking role of El Duende, the evil spirit who resurrects María to relive her tortured life.
María, of course, personifies Piazzolla's native city in the complex and sometime obscure text by the Uruguayan poet Horacio Ferrer. The story lies in the music, just as the tango is the soul of Buenos Aires. This composer revolutionized tango music, hardening edges and coloring sonorities distinctively. He infused bandoneón playing with jazz to create a new style. Soloist Héctor del Curto seemed to downplay the jazz aspects in an otherwise idiomatic performance.
The score is a feast for the ears, redolent of early tangos, modern milongas and waltz-tangos, a toccata for El Duende and even a tango fugue. Halen's solos (and those of second violinist Aubrey Oliverson) captured the sweet ache of tango melodies, and flutist Emma Gerstein provided richly textured and expressive work as the sole wind instrument. Nipped and tucked to barely over an hour, the performance omitted one intermezzo and a burlesquelike scene for Maria and several psychoanalysts. Instrumental moments stood in for several choral spots. The net effect was so mesmerizing it could have gone on much longer.
Monday's percussion ensemble recital, a much-anticipated annual event, fulfilled its mission to offer arresting and diverse music. The opening set presented three colorful pieces written between 1978 and 1991 about faraway places. Philip Glass' "Train to São Paulo" from the film "Powaqqatsi," riffed on chugging rhythms. Then David Byrnes' "Nineveh" added a nine-person chorus chanting in waves in unintelligible syllables, and Christopher Rouse's "Ku-Ka-Ilimoku" explored Hawaiian drumming with the composer's customary abandon.
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After that great start, Lou Harrison's Concerto for Violin and Percussion provided an excellent opportunity to hear the composer's unique ear for unusual sounds, using brake drums, flower pots and tapping on the strings of a double bass for rhythmic color. But even Robert McDuffie could get little charm from a solo violin line using only intervals of a minor second, major thirds and sixths.
Derek Tywoniuk, this year's solo percussion winner, put a vibraphone through its paces in an ear-dazzling nine minutes from Donatoni's "Omar for Vibraphone." Ear-splitting was more the result from Xenakis' "Persephassa," as six percussionists banged and clanged to computer-generated timings only they could hear through earphones. The fascination with ever-shifting synchronization wore thin after about 15 of the 30 minutes.
On Wednesday evening, pianist Vladimir Feltsman offered the first of two recitals exploring music of Soviet composers suppressed under Stalin in the 1920s and '30s. He focused on those influenced by Skryabin. Unlike Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Rachmaninov, who made their names in the West, these composers' music never got out.
As noble an endeavor as it is to bring works by Mosolov, Roslavets and Protopopov to light, none of them could match the communication, depth or earworthiness of the Skryabin pieces Feltsman played so well; his Piano Sonata No. 4 brimmed with charm, and even the more challenging late works "Deux dances"and "Vers la flamme poème" put their dissonances to a colorful purpose.
Of the five other pieces, only Roslavets' "Nocturne" (for two violas, cello, oboe and harp) delivered delicacy and beauty. The clangorous Piano Sonata No. 2 by Protopopov had its moments, especially the final section where a quick-draw theme-and-variations rose to a climax. The delicacy and refinement of Skryabin's Waltz in D-flat, which concluded the program, was like applying salve to raw skin.
NOT TO MISS IN THE COMING DAYS
The Pacifica Quartet, which wowed us last season, is back to team with longtime Aspen favorite Lynn Harrell (cello) in Schubert's Quintet in C major tonight in Harris Hall. The program also includes intriguing works by Ligeti and Ran. Sunday afternoon in the tent, the elegant violinist Simone Porter tackles the lyrical Barber violin concerto. The Festival Orchestra conducted by David Robertson adds the Symphony No. 3 by Christopher Rouse and the popular Concerto for Orchestra by Bartók.
Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 21 years. His reviews appear twice a week in The Aspen Times.
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