Review: Mixed results from a big weekend at the music festival |

Review: Mixed results from a big weekend at the music festival

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times

The biggest orchestra of the season (more than 100 strong) packed itself onto the music tent stage Sunday for the Aspen Festival Orchestra’s concert to play high-calorie music from Rachmaninoff and Wagner. The big sound, wrangled with hit-and-miss effectiveness by conductor Hugh Wolff, of course brought the audience to its feet.

The effort, at least, deserved the recognition.

Pianist Behzod Abduraimov, who was dazzling in Beethoven and Prokofiev in a recital earlier last week, navigated the dangerous shoals of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with a definite idea of what he wanted to achieve. He contrasted delicate, singing passages with crashing chords that never clanged, shaping phrases with deftness. Solo sections and cadenzas wowed with their articulation and expressiveness.

But he and Wolff seemed to have a slightly different idea about tempo. It took them several measures every time the speed changed to get things in sync. Abduraimov seemed to want more spaciousness while Wolff kept pushing the tempo. It wasn’t enough to cause a train wreck, but was enough to throw off an attentive listener. Maybe it just needed one or two more rehearsals. This is, after all, complex music to execute.

The orchestra itself made a big sound, and when conductor and pianist jibed the results were thrilling. The opening Allegro, which had the most obvious synchronization problems, reached some taut climaxes. The short slow movement allowed phrases (and no doubt the musicians) a chance to breathe, before the finale charged ahead with one mini-explosion after another.

For an encore, the pianist calmed things down with a delicate and lilting Sicilienne by Vivaldi by way of J.S. Bach, in pianist Alfred Cortot’s expansive early 20th-century transcription.

As if that weren’t enough of a workout, the second half of the program presented several extended instrumental sections from Wagner’s “Gotterdaemmerung.” “Dawn” and “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” segued into “Siegfried’s Funeral Music” and finally the “Immolation Scene” without a break.

Wolff, conducting without a score, had the broad strokes down well, and the orchestra responded accordingly, especially in the big climaxes. The buildups to them, which are some of the composer’s most masterful pages, did not quite generate the power that they do in the opera house. The final pages, which bring the six-hour opera (and the 15 hours of music in the four-opera Ring of the Nibelung) to a satisfying close, worked its emotional magic. This had to be a great experience for the student musicians playing alongside the pros.

The program opened with a short tango from a very different (but also quite long) work, Dominick Argento’s “The Dream of Valentino,” a bio-opera about the silent film star. The 5-minute dance, featuring accordionist John Torcello, served up a tasty appetizer.

Friday night in the tent, violinist Gil Shaham lavished gorgeous tone and solid articulation on the Sessions Violin Concerto. Audiences and fellow musicians alike relish a chance to hear Shaham play a concerto, any concerto. Conductor Patrick Summers took his best shot, and Shaham probably gave the mid-20th century work as splendid a chance as any soloist could, but even he could not make the composer’s angular, awkwardly skipping melodic lines flow with lumbering orchestral writing. It was like sending a Lamborghini through midtown Manhattan traffic.

Roger Sessions was a great teacher; the list of composers he nurtured is impressive. It was a nice idea to nod to an all-but-forgotten Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, but the results did not pay off as they might have.

Around the violin concerto, the program sandwiched a buoyant Haydn symphony and a jaunty concerto by Mozart for four winds, featuring a terrific lineup of faculty stars. Though meant to leaven the proceedings, the 18th-century music only served to underline how toughgoing Sessions was, for both performers and audience.

Haydn’s Symphony No. 88 was the highlight. Despite tempos that some might find a hair slow, Summers led with vigor and drew playing of swagger and precision from the orchestra.

Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante in E-flat major, a much less consequential work, served to show off both the composer’s and the players’ agility with these instruments. Duet moments between bassoonist Nancy Goeres and horn whiz John Zirbel (does he ever bobble a note?) were especially beguiling. Oboist Richard Woodhams and clarinetist Michael Rusinek held their own.

The late Saturday afternoon chamber music concert was several cuts above usual. It started with a heartfelt performance of three lyrical and evocative songs by the late Steven Stucky, a much-loved faculty member of the festival’s school. Tenor Spencer Lang, an American who sings these days in Germany, gave “The Stars and the Roses” a freshness and directness, with a winning musical embrace from the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble.

Harpist Anneleen Lenaerts’ agile and expressive work carried Debussy’s “Deux danses” with a string quartet. Student soprano Elizabeth Pilon wove lovely harmonic twists with clarinetist Juan Olivares. The afternoon wrapped with a lively performance of Beethoven’s String Quintet in C minor by violinists Robert Hanford and Cornelia Heard, violists Sabina Thatcher and Jacob Shack, and cellist Darrett Adkins.


There’s more tango this week. First up tonight is a concert by the bandoneon soloist Hector Del Curto with his quintet. He returns Thursday in a special event of Piazzola’s extraordinary music, including the Bandoneon Concerto and, with flamboyant violin soloist Sarah Chang, the “Four Seasons of Buenos Aires.” Today, pianist Vladimir Kholodenko assays Skryabin’s 24 Preludes, and Wednesday the American Brass Quintet does its annual concert — always worth a hearing. The most compelling program might be Thursday at 8:30 p.m. when pianist Jeremy Denk and violinist Stefan Jackiw play all four of Ives’ violin sonatas, and a roster of Opera Center singers familiarize us first with the hymns and popular tunes Ives used as material for the works.

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

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