Review: Big Beethoven finale finds the mark in Aspen |

Review: Big Beethoven finale finds the mark in Aspen

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times

For a while there, it looked like Mother Nature and some uninvolving musical patches would put a damper on the Aspen Music Festival’s sold-out finale Sunday, a program that concluded with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 and its magnificent hymn to brotherhood. The weather obscured whole swaths of the first half, and the outlook seemed somewhat uncertain for the Beethoven symphony until the finale. But in the end, “Ode to Joy,” a smashing quartet of singers and a mighty sound from the Colorado Symphony Orchestra Chorus (long a fixture on Aspen’s final day) managed thrilling moments of triumph in the final 20 minutes.

Rain began pounding the Benedict Music Tent shortly after the 4 p.m. start, perversely letting up briefly as the opening work, Arvo Part’s hypnotic “Fratres,” gained in volume and intensity. The quiet open and close of this serenely spiritual 10-minute work were barely audible over the clatter on the tent roof.

Two Russian opera excerpts followed, but the rain made it difficult to discern much detail in bass-baritone Eric Owens’ booming voice. “Vyes’ Tabor Spit,” an aria from Rachmaninoff’s first opera (and a favorite showpiece for the Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin), reflects an aging leader’s anguish over his young wife’s infidelity. There was no trouble hearing the chorus in the coronation scene from Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov,” although its repeated hails of “slava” lacked a measure of enthusiasm. Owens was expressive in both, and the rain slacked enough in Boris’ scene to let us hear most of it.

It’s always interesting what music directors choose to precede a Beethoven Ninth. In this case, musical connections were hard to puzzle out. Perhaps “Fratres” was meant to contrast with Beethoven’s storm and triumph. Or maybe the title (which means “brothers”) was to link with Beethoven’s “Ode.” What’s the connection for the Russian pieces, which deal with lost love and a reluctant new monarch? Was it that Rachamaninoff’s opera was a student composition, meant to honor the students who distinguished themselves in the festival’s school? The coronation scene’s use of the same tune Beethoven used in his “Razumovsky” Quartet No. 2?

The skies cleared at intermission and only clouded up briefly during the symphony, which did not get off to a great start. Conductor Robert Spano drew little mystery in the opening bars. He could have shaped and inflected the music more, as the first movement seemed to just trudge along. The second-movement scherzo perked up, getting more expressive, but lost synchronization at times. Also, tympanist Joseph Pereira, feeling his oats, made too many sections into a percussion concerto.

The noble slow movement barely registered on the eloquence meter, and the stormy opening to the finale needed much more thunder. The “recitative,” announced by massed cellos and basses (which Beethoven pointedly interrupts with reiterations of previously heard themes in the rest of the orchestra), wanted more inflection. But when the low strings finally got to the first iteration of “Ode to Joy,” something clicked. Suddenly we were in Beethoven’s world.

Owens’ entrance and statement of the familiar tune seemed to light a spark under Spano. The music set off sparks as the quartet developed, first by adding tenor (and festival faculty member) Vinson Cole and mezzo-soprano Carolyn Sproule (only recently a student here) to the music mix and finally with the glorious, pure sound of soprano Susanna Phillips soaring over the rich texture. The piece burst into bright sunlight with the chorus’s entrance. With Spano smoothing out Beethoven’s often awkwardly shaped changes of pace, the momentum gained impetus, bringing it all to a rousing, and satisfying, finish.

Friday’s final Chamber Orchestra concert had its fraught moments, as well. An amped-up conductor, Jun Markl, aimed for big gestures in the two tone poems that framed the main attraction, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3, with pianist Vladimir Feltsman. The opener, Saint-Saens relentlessly galloping “Phaeton,” and the closer, Richard Strauss’ “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme,” sacrificed nuance for broad effect.

This urge could be excused in “Phaeton,” which after all is about an outsized hero who meets a tragic end. Strauss’ music for a production of the Moliere play was meant to evoke the era of Lully and the Baroque in general, and like Lully, the composer found a deft balance of delicacy, drama and wit. This performance tossed out the delicacy and turned the sly wit into slapstick.

The concerto was much better, with the often willful Feltsman applying a sort of straight-backed austerity and crispness to Beethoven’s music. Markl set a fleet pace, and the pianist obliged. For some reason he joined in on the orchestra’s statement of the second theme in the first movement, and only some extra ideas in the cadenza (which fit nicely) strayed from straight-ahead Beethoven. If his performance missed some buoyancy, he made up for it with subtle urgency.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 20 years.

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