Review: A good day in Aspen for violinists and violin lovers
August 2, 2015
Thursday was a day in Aspen to thrill a music lover, especially those enamored of the violin.
At 6 p.m., the second installment of the science and music series co-presented by the Aspen Music Festival and the Aspen Science Center focused on what makes a great violin special. A cogent and personal discussion involving violinists Robert McDuffie and Elizabeth Pitcairn, moderated by Alan Fletcher, the music festival's president, explored the differences between their violins and others. It culminated in McDuffie, a longtime festival favorite, playing snatches of Tchaikovsky on six different instruments so the capacity audience could judge their relative merits.
To demonstrate what he loved about his own Guarneri del Gesù "Ladenburg," made in 1735, he played the first movement of the Brahms C major sonata. Prompted by a request from the audience, Pitcairn played some Bach on her Stradivari "Red Mendelssohn." Made in 1721, it's the model for the "Red Violin" in the 1999 film of that name. Both performances brought out nuances that distinguish these two violin makers, Guarneri richer in the mid-range and Stradivari more brilliant at the top.
As if things couldn't get any better, Augustin Hadelich put his Stradivari Ex-Kiesewetter (1723) to extraordinary use in the evening's recital in Harris Hall. With pianist Joyce Yang in total sync musically, they galloped joyfully through Stravinsky's "Suite After Themes, Fragments and Pieces by Pergolesi," a canny arrangement of the composer's familiar Pulcinella suite, and finished the program by drawing out all the broad gestures, cycling themes and rich tonalities of the Franck Violin Sonata in A major.
They preceded the Franck (without pause) with three skittish little pieces by Kurtag. As Yang described it, the effect was "like lifting the curtain on an opera." To complete the program, Yang gave Debussy's moody showpiece "Estampes" a soft glow, and Hadelich tore through Ysaÿe's Sonata for Unaccompanied Violin in D minor "Ballade" with astonishing technical command without losing an ounce of subtlety.
As an encore, the first two movements of Sarasate's "Carmen Fantasy" put the spotlight squarely on Hadelich's ability to string together show-off technique with real music making.
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The week started with winds. The American Brass Quintet has been performing at this festival for more than 40 years, bass trombonist John D. Rojak noted Tuesday evening in one introduction. Tuesday's program made a case for being the best. The quintet's clear sound and precise articulation let the music speak with big-time personality. And the works on the program brought plenty of their own charisma.
Among the highlights were the two newest — a world premiere and a 2014 piece. Premieres and new pieces are something of a regular occurrence in the quintet's concerts here. "Shine, for Brass Quintet," by Robert Paterson, who mentioned in his introduction that he was a student composer here 16 years ago, challenged the members of the quintet with difficult solo and ensemble passages, all in service of colorful music that made joyful use of everything brass instruments can do. Mutes, glissandos and brief fanfares all played roles in four very different movements. The first, — emphasized staccato playing — all brightness, and the second cast the brass as chorale singers — all interweaving lines. The third, a scherzo, explored contrasts between open and muted sounds, and the finale raced hell-bent for brilliance, and achieved it.
"Fata Morgana," by Nina C. Young, who wrote it last summer at Tanglewood, ended the concert with a stage populated by two full brass quintets, five extra French horns and a battery of percussion led by Jonathan Haas providing shimmering phrases on vibraphones, clashes on tam-tams and powerful use of bass drums. The 10-minute tone poem explores the effects of seagoing optical illusions, which can magical or disastrous. Never let it be said that a woman can't write muscular, powerful music. This one nearly took the roof off with its intensity.
Other highlights included Lutoslawski's cheeky and pungent little Mini Overture and two of Raymond Mase's always eloquent adaptations of early music. A collection of offbeat 16th-century canons held more interest than a pleasant group of Elizabethan Consort Music, all of it played with refinement and detail.
At Monday's chamber music in the music tent, aside from a charming wind quartet by Françaix, the best thing on the agenda was a beautiful Brahms Horn Trio in E-flat major featuring supple and precise French horn work by Eric Reed.
Monday's special event featuring the contemporary jazz of the Vijay Iyer Trio had its moments, but the sublime interplay for which this group is famous never quite materialized. The musical choices were, in many cases, off-putting, rambling and repetitious. Iyer on piano, Stephan Crump on bass and Marcus Gilmore on drums had some brilliant minutes amid long, uninspired stretches.
NOT TO BE MISSED IN THE COMING DAYS
Bassist Edgar Meyer plays an original piece, "Thanks (for Marty)," on the chamber music recital this afternoon at Harris Hall, reason enough to check in. Tonight is the final performance of "The Classical Style" and "Cows of Apollo," the juicy and funny opera double bill at the Wheeler Opera House. The competition is Steven Osborne playing Messiaen's "Vingt regards sur l'enfant Jesù" at Harris. Robert McDuffie plays Bernstein on Sunday in the tent with the Festival Orchestra.
Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 21 years. His reviews appear twice a week in The Aspen Times.