Review: A Glorious Concerto for Orchestra Highlights the Weekend
August 29, 2015
Bartók wrote his Concerto for Orchestra in 1943 to display the virtuosity of the principal players in the Boston Symphony, which commissioned it. It has become his most popular work, and it's a great test of an orchestra's mettle. Not only does it place every first-stand player in the spotlight at various times, but it puts the full ensemble through its paces. A great performance should be thrilling.
Sunday afternoon, the Aspen Festival Orchestra met the challenge. Every musician in every section, 109 players in all, rose to the occasion when the score called for it. The overall sound emerged with a rich, glorious sheen and keen balance. This is how a big-ass orchestra should sound.
Conductor David Robertson set a pace that felt exactly right, shifted tempos smoothly and then basically let the orchestra do its thing. At one point in the galloping finale, Robertson just dropped his arms to his side, leaving the orchestra to fend on its own, picking up only when a shift was imminent. That's trust.
The principal players, who come from top orchestras, had something individual to say every time their turn came in the spotlight. The students who completed the ensemble kept up impressively. The brass, which plays a huge role in the piece's climax, distinguished themselves with ideal balance and unified execution. Principal trumpet Karen Bliznik, who heads the St. Louis Symphony's trumpet section, rode above the whole orchestra in a breathtaking top line while the remaining 14 trumpet, trombone, horn and tuba players, 11 of them students, completed the sonority brilliantly.
So it went throughout the orchestra. The second movement's succession of duets (bassoons, oboes, clarinets, flutes and muted trumpets) caught the sashaying dance rhythms. The central third movement's "night music" wove sinuous lines into a haunting texture. The fourth movement intermezzo brimmed with jocularity, including some ideally rude slides from the trombones.
Simone Porter was the soloist in Barber's Violin Concerto, unfurling the homespun solo line in the first two movements with enviable precision and grace but little warmth. Oboist Elaine Douvas provided the sense of generosity needed in the slow movement, and most of the excitement came from the orchestra as Porter nailed every note of the finger-busting perpetual-motion finale.
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The program opened with the Symphony No. 3 of Christopher Rouse, who taught composition in Aspen for years. Similar to much of his music, the 2011 piece takes no prisoners, opening with 10 minutes of jagged lines, dissonances and pounding rhythms. The second and final movement applies inventive variations to a theme, some of them actually gentle and ingratiating.
Saturday night in Harris Hall the Pacifica Quartet's varied program demonstrated why it has become one of the premier string quartets out there. They began with Ligeti's String Quartet No. 1 "Metamorphoses nocturnes," a spiky and spicy homage to Bartók, completed in 1954, then turned to Shulamit Ran's String Quartet No. 3 "Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory," a heart-wrenching memoir of the Holocaust, completed in 2013. Playing in both works burnished their sound with a dark-hued glow, along with naturalness to the interchange of lines — the chamber music ideal of four playing as one. A wide range of unusual bowing effects added to the expressiveness.
Lynn Harrell, a longtime Aspen favorite, provided the additional cello voice for the marquee piece, Schubert's String Quintet in C major. The quartet's playing was exquisite in the harmonically exploratory music. Harrell's low notes boomed annoyingly out of balance, but in the higher register his sound knit smoothly, and the results were mesmerizing.
Joshua Bell's debut here as a conductor in Friday's Chamber Symphony concert was long on showmanship but short on nuance. Leading a baroque-sized string orchestra through Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons," his exaggerated body movements drove a breathless performance and sometimes cost him in executing the solo part. He articulated much of it with his usual panache, but the atmosphere hardly changed from one season to the next, and there were more than a few uncharacteristic slips in intonation.
The orchestra managed to keep up with Bell's tempos but pretty much drowned out the harpsichord, with its lid down. The continuo sections (violin, harpsichord and cello, deftly played by Michael Mermagen) emerged as soulful violin-cello duets.
Conducting Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 without a score, baton or podium, Bell set a pedal-to-the-metal pace that left little time for the music to breathe. The slow-opening pages kept pushing forward with no sense of anticipation. Once the lilting main theme got going it felt more like dashing than dancing. Bell allowed woodwinds and trumpets to dominate the balance, obscuring this magnificent score's rich detail. All about rhythm and thrust, the resulting performance reached climax after climax at maximum magnitude. The fast pace nearly derailed the Presto third movement, and reduced the strings' intricate fingerwork in the Allegro con brio finale to an Allegro con blur. It seemed as if everyone was looking to concertmaster Bing Wang to hold everything together.
Bell is no stranger to this music, nor is he a novice conductor. The first recording he made as music director of London's famed Academy of St. Martin in the Fields included the Beethoven 7th (in 2012). Recordings use retakes and engineers' rebalances to tweak excellent performances. This one might have benefited from another go.
NOT TO MISS IN THE COMING DAYS
Mozart's cheeky opera "Così fan tutte" opens tonight at the Wheeler Opera House, with additional performances Thursday and Saturday. Wednesday at Harris Hall, voices from the Opera Theater Center have some fun with Cole Porter songs. Pianist Conrad Tao presents a solo recital tonight in Harris Hall that climaxes with Schumann's "Carnival," and teams with a mix of current students and pros Thursday in sextets by Poulenc and Brahms. The elegant violin of Stefan Jackiw can be heard in the Chamber Orchestra concert Friday.
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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