Review: Let’s hear it for orchestras that listen during Aspen Music Fest |

Review: Let’s hear it for orchestras that listen during Aspen Music Fest

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times

Hearing familiar music such as the well-loved works of Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky on kickoff weekend for the Aspen Music Festival allows us to focus on just how good the musicians are who are playing it. For both the Aspen Chamber Symphony, which played on Friday, and the Aspen Festival Orchestra, which played Sunday, the answer is “pretty darn good.”

These orchestras, where students play alongside principals who spend the rest of the year in major symphony orchestras and chamber groups, formed only early last week. And yet evident in both ensembles was a palpable sense of unity, of consciously listening to one another intently, the better to bring more nuance and expression to the music.

The season’s first orchestra concert Friday found the Chamber Orchestra focused on Beethoven in a performance of extraordinary refinement from beginning to end. Energetic conductor Nicholas McGegan found a balance between precision and warmth in the sunny Symphony No. 4, and pianist Anton Nel’s crystalline and nuanced work brought the oft-disregarded Piano Concerto No. 1 to vivid life.

McGegan established a vigorous but appealingly deft style for Beethoven in the opening “King Stephen” overture, but it was the concerto where everything came together. Both soloist and conductor matched a sense of buoyancy. The music unfolded like a silk scarf, ebbing, flowing, fluttering, studded with jewels of iridescent phrases from Nel every time the piano entered. The cadenza, the shortest and least flamboyant of the three Beethoven wrote, sneaks in quietly after the sustained chord in the orchestra. Nel let it grow and spread organically before receding into the final page of the first movement.

The largo moved with grace and had the nuanced feel of chamber music; Burt Hara’s quiet clarinet draped a lovely veil over the piano’s wanderings. The finale, almost Haydnesque in its joyousness, veritably skipped through to its conclusion.

The symphony romped with similar glee. Even the slow introduction avoided too much foreboding before establishing a fleet pace, a true Allegro vivace, that never waned. The complex filigrees that ornament the rapturous second movement never revved things up too much, and the wit that infuses the third-movement minuet arrived with a wink, not a guffaw. The finale brought things home in euphoric style.

”Scheherazade,” Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s colorful treatment of the Arabian classic “A Thousand And One Nights,” opened Sunday’s Festival Orchestra program with wonderfully expansive, controlled playing from all hands. Pianist Inon Barnaran followed that with a dry-eyed yet expressive rendition of Tchaikovsky’s heart-on-sleeve Piano Concerto No. 1, among the most popular of piano-and-orchestra works.

One of the glories of this “Scheherazade” performance was the recurring violin theme associated with the title character. David Coucheron, in the concert master’s chair, spun them with limpid tone, punctuated by glissandos and chords stunningly articulated by harpist Anneleen Lenaerts, new this year from the Vienna Philharmonic. Rimsky’s kaleidoscopic orchestration brings all the principal players into the spotlight at one time or another. Most memorable were Elaine Douvas’ plaintive oboe, Nadine Asin’s sultry low-range flute and John Zirbel’s high-elevation French horn. The filigree of cellist Desmond Hoebig’s run at the Scheherazade theme also contributed. The entire brass managed to be sonorous and present without a hint of blare and the percussion seasoned the score without overpowering it, especially the insistent pulse of David Herbert’s tympani.

Conductor Robert Spano brought out the music’s shifting colors and pulsings with well-judged intensity, and drew deft balances throughout. Broad-beamed pieces such as this are right in this conductor’s wheelhouse.

As fully realized as this performance was, the Tchaikovsky concerto might have benefited from another rehearsal or two. The broad outlines were there, to be sure. Softer, more lyrical passages were especially fine, especially Barnatan’s caress of the second movement’s tune, first offered by Nasin’s flute. But details too often missed. Entrances after pauses or tempo shifts repeatedly needed an additional measure or two to synchronize. For his part, the soloist tended to rush complex passages, and moments of denser texture could have used more clarity. Things fell into place better in the finale, finishing with a welcome rush.

To open the season Thursday in the smaller Harris Hall, festival favorites cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han assayed cello sonatas by Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Rachmaninov. Their smart programming mined musical interconnections. In a charming talk to begin the second half, Wu Han noted that the “three B’s” sonatas all consciously take their cues from Bach’s counterpoint, for example. Each one even prominently features a fugue.

Finckel displayed his flair for singing melody. He seemed most at home in the romantic gestures of the Brahms Sonata No. 1 in E minor and the more extroverted passages in the long Rachmaninov sonata. Both musicians favored a warm, legato approach to the Bach Sonata No. 1 in G major, which minimized differences between the baroque and romantic styles, almost to a fault.

The pianist preceded the expansive Rachmaninov sonata with a set of five sublime solo preludes by Skryabin, the Russian composer’s contemporary.

What Not to Miss in Coming Days

The Takacs Quartet tackles Debussy, Mozart and Beethoven (his famous first Razumovsky Quartet) in recitals Wednesday and Saturday in Harris Hall. Chopin is on the program for celebrated young pianists Yundi and Hung-Kuan Chen in separate recitals tonight and Thursday. Spano conducts Friday’s Chamber Orchestra concert with pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet in the Beethoven Concerto No. 4.

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