Review: Classics that Surprise on Sunday’s Orchestra Program |

Review: Classics that Surprise on Sunday’s Orchestra Program

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times

There was a lot going beneath the surface of the music in Sunday’s canny Festival Orchestra program. Conductor Ludovic Morlot started with an overture, and then a concerto, a short symphony and finished with an orchestral waltz. Nothing unusual there, but nothing was exactly what it seemed.

Dvorak’s Violin Concerto in A minor plays with traditional forms and omits a show-off cadenza. Stravinsky’s Symphony in C messes with traditional structures even more, spicing things up with pungent harmonies and jagged rhythms. And Ravel’s La valse twists the oh-so-familiar 19th-century dance form to comment on social rot lurking underneath from a 20th-century perspective.

Even the overture, Berlioz’s broad-beamed “Le corsaire,” was a little different, not written for an opera or theatrical work. It’s dashing enough to call to mind an adventurous pirate brandishing a cutlass, though, and the orchestra was running on high-octane fuel this day. It might have blurred some details but the broad strokes were true.

Augustin Hadelich was the soloist in the concerto, spinning out the composer’s Slavic melodic lines and rhythms with a certain insouciance. Morlot held the orchestra back just enough to let the violin sound peek through, at least most of the time. The piece shows its vitality, and Hadelich seemed to relish the Czech flavors. (As an encore he offered Paganini Caprice No. 9, a brief exercise in covering the violin’s entire range, often in the same measure.)

The Stravinsky had its ragged moments. When it did get on track it reveled in the composer’s unexpected changes of direction but the density of the ensemble texture made it difficult to achieve the rhythmic spring that the piece depends upon.

The capper was “La valse.” Ravel’s colorful orchestration and increasingly dense harmonies make it perhaps the most frightening waltz ever written. Morlot brought out how the piece teases us with waltz-like gestures, and just when it seems to find a groove it lurches onto something else. At the end, that something else portrayed not only disintegration of the musical form but the collapse of a society that paid too little attention to its excesses.

Sunday’s concert had plenty of rewards, but a little more finesse might have made it great. Saturday’s chamber music evening with pianist Anton Nel, however, had enough for several concerts.

Nel’s name often comes up when soloists are asked which pianist they want to work with here, Aspen Music Festival president and CEO Alan Fletcher told a small gathering prior to that concert. Nel, who travels the world as a piano soloist, surrounded himself with musicians he personally knows well and performs with often here.

It paid off handsomely in Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 1, which occupied the second half of the program and exuded the sort of unity that we usually hear only from touring trios and quartets. Violinist Sylvia Rosenberg, violist James Dunham and cellist Michael Mermagen, like Nel, often work within ensembles, and they all know each other well. Details and nuances emerged that can only happen when musicians breathe with each other.

The Brahms quartet spans a range of musical expression, from subtly phrased unison playing to broad chorales, complex polyphony and a full-on gypsy dance, all of which emerged with presence. At the center was Nel, his velvety touch backed up by a steely rhythmic sense, seamlessly transitioning from soloist to accompanist in a blink.

Oboist Elaine Douvas, clarinetist Joaquin Valadepenas and French hornist John Zirbel, principals from the Festival Orchestra, and bassoonist Per Hannevold, first chair of the Chamber Orchestra, have worked together here for years. It showed in a charming and diverting Mozart quintet that opened the program.

The meat of the first half, however, comprised five scene-painting miniatures from Debussy’s Preludes Book II, Nel on solo piano. Aside from the jolly cakewalk-infused “General Lavine — eccentric,” the selections highlighted Nel’s ability to caress phrases and create liquid tones, especially in the watery “Ondine” and the wispy final prelude, “Feux d’artifice.”

In Friday evening’s Aspen Chamber Orchestra program, flutist Emmanuel Pahud made the biggest impression. With the energetic Nicholas McGegan conducting, Pahud lavished burnished tone, supple phrasing and brilliant articulation on C.P.E. Bach’s Flute Concerto in D minor. He upped the ante with extra-fast fireworks in the Allegro di molto finale. His legato playing and expressiveness in the slow movement (Un poco andante) kept the pulse moving while making the music hover, all the while unfurling gorgeous tone. Pahud returned for another lovely Andante, this by C.P.E.’s contemporary Wolfgang (Mozart), a piece meant for a flute concerto never completed.

In between, the fast-rising violinist Simone Porter applied sleek tone and articulation to Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor. Her most effective playing came in the meandering Adagio, a hushed respite after a rambunctious (and somewhat underpowered) opening movement.

Though the rhythmic vitality of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 fits right into McGegan’s wheelhouse, the orchestra only occasionally responded to his vigorous encouragement with the requisite dancelike spring. A few botched entrances included an exposed stumble by the full orchestra at the start of the Scherzo. Woodwind and brass sections overwhelmed the strings far too often. The result was a performance longer on enthusiasm than in execution.


Joyce Yang plays Rachmaninoff’s Piano Sonata No. 2 today and Midori takes on three J.S. Bach unaccompanied partitas in a special event Wednesday, both at Harris Hall. Puccini’s popular “La Boheme” opens Thursday in the Wheeler Opera House, repeating Saturday and Monday. Friday at the tent Joshua Bell plays Saint-Saens’ proto-Impressionistic Violin Concerto No. 3. Robert Spano conducts this and Mahler’s Symphony No. 4, with Sarah Schafer singing the angelic soprano part.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 22 years. His reviews appear in The Aspen Times on Tuesdays and Saturdays.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Aspen and Snowmass Village make the Aspen Times’ work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.