Review: Exciting weekend for orchestras and pianists

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times

Hannu Lintu conducts an orchestra with an eye toward the overall shape of the music. Not for him are big gestures or body movements when the music reaches a climax, nor does he crouch when the music goes quiet. In Sunday’s excellent concert with the Aspen Festival Orchestra, he hardly ever cued an entrance with a gesture noticeable from the audience’s side of the podium, glancing at the musicians or trusting that they knew when they needed to come in.

It was something to watch and something to hear. He had barely stepped onto the podium when he gave the downbeat for the opening work, Richard Strauss’ “Don Juan.” The orchestra responded with the same sense of impetuousness and precision. Throughout the piece, his baton communicated shifting tempos and nuances of dynamics and tone. Completing the picture, soloists within the orchestra fashioned a series of special moments, most notably Elaine Douvas’ sinuous oboe solo, echoed briefly by clarinetist Joaquin Valdepenas. Concertmaster David Chen and timpanist David Herbert made similarly vibrant contributions.

There was similar hair-trigger response to Lintu’s subtle shifts in tempo and tone during Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5. The Finnish conductor let the tension ebb and flow until the glorious finish unfolded.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for Lintu and the orchestra was Steven Mackey’s “Stumble to Grace,” a nervous, offbeat and endlessly invigorating mash-up of music emulating children’s toys, jazz and all kinds of complex rhythms and jagged tunes. The piano concerto, which debuted in 2011, was written for Orli Shaham, and it aims to trace a child’s growing confidence from early stumbles to moments of triumph. At times, the music evoked Vince Guaraldi and at others Stravinsky, but Shaham looked and sounded as if she was having a ball. She played with remarkable abandon, even as the densely packed rhythms of the finale gained momentum irresistibly. Audience reaction was immediate and enthusiastic.

There were far too many empty seats in Harris Hall on Saturday evening for Lise de la Salle’s extraordinary piano recital. Beyond her electrifying technique, the 27-year-old Frenchwoman played music of Ravel, Debussy and Brahms with a maturity far beyond her years. There’s an old soul behind that baby face.

For ravishing delicacy, there was a group of Debussy preludes, ranging from the atmospheric wafting clouds of “Les Sons et les Parfums Tournent Dans l’Air du Soir” to the skittering twinkles of “Les Fees Sont d’Exquises Danseuses” and the time-stopping, hovering in midair of “Le Filles aux Cheveux de Lin,” all given readings of uncommon nuance.

For sheer pianistic extravagance, she not only met the technical challenges of Ravel’s “Gaspard de la Nuit,” one of the most difficult pieces in the literature, but made the sloshing waves of “Ondine” feel so fresh one could feel the spray, injected a palpable sense of foreboding into “Le Gibet” and made “Scarbo” prance like a demented imp.

In Brahms’ “Variations” and “Fugue on a Theme,” by G.F. Handel, each successive page revealed a different color and style, yet each moment seemed like one more turn of the same kaleidoscope. The final fugue, a Romantic-era composer’s broad-beamed take on the strict counterpoint of Handel’s era, bracketed the opening work, Busoni’s wildly elaborate arrangement of the majestic chaconne Bach included in his Partita No. 2 for Unaccompanied Violin (itself a sort of theme and variations). De la Salle managed to give Busoni’s sonic expansion its due. She let the forte and double-forte passages ring out fully but without clangor, focusing on dynamic shifts, crescendos and diminuendos to superb effect.

The weekend began with a beguiling program Friday evening in the music tent, pairing offbeat Mendelssohn and Stravinsky works. Both pieces reveled in the antique forms and styles of the Baroque adapted for the composers’ own era. Larry Rachleff, in his best work as a conductor here in several years, got buoyant playing by standing up all the string players in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in D minor and captured the cheekiness of Stravinsky’s neoclassical era in the suite from “Pulcinella.”

Daniel Hope, the soloist in the concerto, written when Mendelssohn was 14, has plenty of experience playing Bach and Vivaldi. He eased into the teenage composer’s bow to the Baroque with characteristic elan. This is a different animal from the Concerto in E minor, perhaps the most played violin concerto in the repertoire, but it’s still unmistakably Mendelssohn in its elegant phrasing and willingness to indulge in lush phrases or harmonies. This was especially true in the short cadenzas, which Hope dispatched with a silky touch.

Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella” suite uses tunes originally attributed to Pergolesi but now known to be by a variety of contemporaries. Rachleff got the orchestra to play them in fairly strict Baroque style while injecting Stravinsky’s pungent harmonic and offbeat rhythmic glosses with barely concealed glee. He also trusted solo players to make the most of their moments in the lead. Oboist Arianna Ghez was especially beguiling in her nuanced delivery of the tune in the Serenata. The slapstick duet between trombonist Nick Platoff and bassist Albert Laszlo came off with the appropriate fizz.

Messiaen’s “Oiseaux Exotiques” served as a pungent opener. Combined woodwinds and brass gave the dissonantly harmonized birdcalls a sharp edge, and 16-year-old Tengku Irfan played the extensive piano part with admirable crispness and flair.

Not to miss in coming days

Sextets are on the menu when violinist Hope and cellist Alisa Weilerstein lead separate groups in Tchaikovsky’s high-spirited “Souvenir de Florence” and Schoenberg’s heart-on-sleeve “Verklarte Nacht” in Harris Hall tonight. On Thursday in the music tent, satin-voiced tenor Vittorio Grigolo sings a recital of Italian songs. Prepare to swoon.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 21 years. His reviews appear twice a week in The Aspen Times.