Review: Musical detours enliven Festival’s busy week

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times

The restless mind and passionate pianism of Jeremy Denk, the sleek silvery sound and hair-trigger responsiveness of violinist Stefan Jackiw and the unique music of American’s first rugged individualist composer, Charles Ives, make a potent brew. Thursday night’s recital of Ives’ four violin sonatas in Harris Hall delivered an unforgettable evening.

Denk and Jackiw toured New York, Philadelphia and elsewhere with this program in the fall to great acclaim. Their unanimity of approach and locked-in articulation was palpable, bringing a welcome expansiveness to Ives’ sometimes rocky musical gestures. The emphasis was on nostalgia, aided by a quartet of male singers from the Aspen Opera Center who familiarized us with the 19th century hymns and popular songs that Ives used as core material in his works.

In these sonatas, the composer worked the tunes into moments of unabashed humanity, here serene and heartbreakingly beautiful, there messy and raucous. Jackiw’s singing tone and willingness to crash into harmonic walls paid dividends against Denk’s alternately earnest and playful piano. It was an all-encompassing program, as much a feast for the mind as for the heart and the ear.

On Tuesday, pianist Vadim Kholodenko played a very different sort of recital. By a wide margin the highlight was Skryabin’s 24 Preludes, each miniature showing its own color, shape and style through Kholodenko’s thorough command of tone, legato, tempo and dynamics. Skryabin’s Fantasie in B minor, which concluded the program, followed with broad, expressive pianism.

The program opened with Schumann’s “Nachtstucke.” Essentially nocturnes, these four spooky short works are not dreamy, gossamer night scenes like Chopin’s. At some level they call to mind Bartok’s “night music” movements but with less dissonance. The playing caught that spirit. Schumann’s Humoreske in B-flat major contains few chuckles despite its title. Its series of short episodes segue from one reflection to another, most of them melancholy. Kholodenko drew out the differences in color with subtlety.

The encore, an actual Chopin nocturne, cooled things off and displayed some of Kholodenko’s most beautiful tone-making.

The American Brass Quintet’s annual recital Wednesday in Harris Hall included two world premieres among its usual mix of Renaissance and contemporary works.

Kenneth Fuchs’ Brass Quintet No. 2 “American” lit a fire under the players’ virtuosity, with rapidly moving, colorful and delightfully accessible writing that never flagged. It was so good I wished they had played the entire 12 minutes over again. Eric Nathan’s “Missing Words II” went more for wit, with music inspired by invented German words. The best of the three parts was “Brillenbrillanz,” translated as the sudden feeling of bright focus when trying on a new pair of glasses. Each players remove one tuning tube from his instrument, creating an out-of-focus sound to contrast with the clarity of a whole trumpet or trombone. Although this music ventured beyond the single effect, the other two parts did not.

The quintet’s mellow and rich playing on the “old” music of Gabrieli, Stolzer and others of the Renaissance contrasted nicely with these works, and the virtuosic fun of the opener, Clint Needham’s Brass Quintet No. 1 “Circus.”

Earlier Wednesday, Adele Anthony trotted amiably through Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1 with the all-student Aspen Philharmonic under conductor George Jackson. She played with lovely tone and clean articulation but didn’t make much of it. The program also included a world premiere by Weijun Chen, who won the 2015 Jacob Druckman prize for the best student work. In its nine minutes, “Dancer” explored resonant harmonies and sonorities and reflected fine command of orchestration and form.

Two arresting and rewarding concerts this week paid homage to the brilliant and highly original jazz-influenced tango composer Astor Piazzolla. On Monday, Hector Del Curto explored a range of music in the composer’s familiar quintet form, unfurling soulful and exciting music from the bandoneon, the square accordian-ish instrument that harnesses the sound of tango. The band speaks the language, literally, and it rendered this music with authenticity and power.

Violinist Sarah Chang got top billing on Thursday’s concert, a special event titled “Viva Piazzolla!” and bringing appropriate flair, thrust and stylishness to the composer’s “The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires.” Although her technique deserted her occasionally, she amply reflected the wit and flavor of this music, impressively supported by a mostly student ad hoc orchestra led by concertmaster David Coucheron of the Atlanta Symphony and conductor William Kunhardt. (Special kudos to cellist Jennifer Yunyoung Choi’s soulful aching solos.)

For his part, Curto ably pushed against the bounds of the classical form in Piazzolla’s Concerto for Bandoneon to make the piece thrilling, but the highlight of the evening was his encore, riding the driving rhythms of the composer’s breakthrough Nuevo Tango masterpiece “Libertango.” For her encore, Chang revisited the famous rapid-fire closing movement of “Summer” in that other Four Seasons (the one by Vivaldi).


Denk returns tonight for a solo recital that culminates with Schubert’s monumental Piano Sonata in B-flat major but also includes ragtime music from Joplin, Stravinsky and Bolcom. Speaking of Bolcom, tonight’s the last chance to experience “A Wedding,” his opera adaptation of the wry Robert Altman film. Cellist Alisa Weilerstein makes her only appearance Sunday with violinist Noah Bendix-Balgley in the Brahms Double Concerto on an Aspen Festival Orchestra program surrounded by Strauss, both J. and R., reminding us that dance is a theme this summer.