Percussionists, cellist upstage (some) big names

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times

In a three-day period that included a recital by the much-lauded pianist Kyrill Gerstein and the much-loved American String Quartet, who would have guessed that the most stunningly beautiful moments would have come from an amplified cello and an array of percussion?

Tan Dun’s 1991 piece “Elegy: Snow in June” made the biggest impression in the Percussion Ensemble’s eclectic annual recital Monday, a program that touched on Debussy, Shostakovich, Bernstein, Gorecki and Arvo Part. The cellist, 20-year-old Nicholas Mariscal, seemed born to play Dun’s soulful, endlessly inventive and expressive music. With rock-solid technique and undeniable star quality, Mariscal seemed less a student getting a break than a bona fide artist lending a little extra class to the proceedings.

Dun wrote the piece, a fierce and heart-rending response to the riots in Tiananmen Square, shortly after he immigrated from China and was still pursuing a doctorate at Columbia University. The 18-minute work opens with a plaintive solo by the cello in what has become Dun’s signature style: a melding of Chinese inflections in a Western structure. A rattle of Chinese gongs, cymbals and drums interrupts the melodic line and finally erupts into the sort of cacophony one hears as lion dancers approach in a Chinese New Year parade. The cello responds with its own uptempo expressions, and the game is on for the rest of the kaleidoscopic stream of consciousness. It’s mesmerizing stuff, virtuosic and emotionally potent.

Without amplification, a solo cello has no chance against four percussionists clattering away. The electronic processing certainly affected the sound, but it could not alter Mariscal’s gasp-worthy technique and pinpoint articulation.

“The cello responds with its own uptempo expressions, and the game is on for the rest of the kaleidoscopic stream of consciousness. It’s mesmerizing stuff, virtuosic and emotionally potent.”

Similar emotional content underlay Bernstein’s “Halil,” inspired by the death of an Israeli flutist in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Faculty artist Bonita Boyd gave it a heartfelt reading, but the music lacks Dun’s communicative punch. Much better was Part’s 1977 “Fratres” in the composer’s 2006 arrangement for percussion. Originally written for strings plus a recurring flourish by bass drum and woodblock, four marimbas of various sizes revealed the inner voices more completely if not the sustained sonorities.

Percussionist and actor Kevin Schlossman’s timing and wit had to be seen to be believed as he essentially body-synced to a prerecording percussion track in “Aphasia,” a 2010 piece by Applebaum. Finally, Percy Grainger’s exuberant and colorful arrangement of “Pagodas,” from a piano suite by Debussy, concluded the concert by proving just how beautiful percussion music can be when it includes a harp, a harmonium and two pianos.

In each of these pieces, the student musicians,under the direction of Jonathan Haas, delivered playing that was impressive for its precision and sensitivity. Plus, they sure could make a wondrous racket when the music called for it.

In his Aspen Music Festival debut, Aspen Times arts editor Stewart Oksenhorn distinguished himself as one of two offstage voices reading the beginning of the Gogol story on which Shostakovich’s opera “The Nose” is based. The entr’acte, essentially a percussion fanfare, opened the concert.

Gerstein was alternately dazzling and exasperating in his recital Tuesday. Although he played the quieter music with uncommon grace, he seemed to champ at the bit for moments when he could whale away at the piano, often producing a harsh sound rather than something round and majestic. In the 21 movements of Schumann’s “Carnaval,” the ones that stood out were “Coquette,” “Aveu” and especially “Chopin,” a delicious imitation of the Polish pianist and composer, who was Schumann’s contemporary. It made me want to hear what Gerstein could do with real Chopin.

Mussorgsky’s original “Pictures at an Exhibition,” which was written for piano, got a similarly polarized reading. The delicate “Tuileries” and the sprightly “Ballet of the Chicks in the Shells” came off much better than “Baba Yaga” or the concluding “Great Gate at Kiev,” which suffered from willful wrenching of tempos and clangy fortissimos.

After that, the American String Quartet’s signature ability to dissolve itself into any given composer’s world came as a breath of fresh air. In their recital Wednesday, Haydn’s String Quartet in F major, Op. 77, No. 2, combined rhythmic buoyancy, impeccable balance of inner voices and graceful articulation into a delightfully puckish opener.

Like actors changing from comedy to drama, they made the switch to Janaek’s emotionally wrought String Quartet No. 1 “The Kreutzer Sonata” seamlessly. They invested the Romantic harmonies with squeezes of angst and applied the dissonant, slashing interjections of harsh bow-near-bridge with the power of a slap. Evoked by Tolstoy’s story of hot-blooded jealousy sparked by Beethoven’s music, the Kreutzer packed an appropriate wallop, a stunning performance.

As if to pour oil on turbulent waters, Brahms’ musically inventive and resolutely uplifting Quintet No. 1 in F major capped off the concert. Violist James Dunham, who seems to be the viola-designate among the Aspen faculty artists for such assignments, melded seamlessly with the warm, rich sound. Despite the rotund sonorities, none of the details escaped notice.

Not to miss in the days ahead

In his always highly anticipated bass recital Saturday night, Edgar Meyer plays Bach, Kodaly and his own music. Pianist Yefim Bronfman aims for the lyrical side of Bartok, and clarinetist Joaquin Valdepenas assays a completion of Britten’s unfinished clarinet concerto on Sunday’s Festival Orchestra concert, which also includes Strauss’ “Don Juan” and Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloe” Suite No. 2. On Monday, Sylvia McNair, who took up the American songbook to enthusiastic acclaim after she wound down her career as an operatic soprano, sings Gershwin and Sondheim in a special event.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about Aspen Music Festival concerts for 19 years. His reviews appear in The Aspen Times twice a week.