Review: Slatkin, Aspen Festival Orchestra dodge the rain, score |

Review: Slatkin, Aspen Festival Orchestra dodge the rain, score

Harvey Steiman
Special to the Aspen Times

Something memorable always happens when Leonard Slatkin conducts in Aspen, and not just rainstorms that have been known to pelt the music tent in his appearances and drown out entire symphonies. In what was announced as his last concert in Aspen, Slatkin led a program of big musical gestures that seemed to give even Mother Nature pause.

Unfortunately, some rumbles of thunder and a loud rain squall during his remarks preceding Richard Strauss’ “Eine Alpensinfonie” chased away most folks on the lawn awaiting the main event outside the music tent. Straight-faced, Slatkin chided the percussion section for coming in 25 minutes too early, but as the rain subsided, virtually every vivid note of the piece was audible.

The Strauss piece made a perfect choice for a music festival in a mountain town. It describes in colorful detail, and often gloriously extravagant music, a trek up an alp and back, complete with cowbell, a waterfall and, yes, a mountain storm. This was a bold and totally committed performance, especially in the sonorities of the massed brass section and the broad sweep of the strings. Slatkin clearly relished conducting the final pages as the sun set and the music receded into the darkness from which it started.

Good as that was, the first half presented even better delights. The opener, Robert Sierra’s “Fandangos,” struck me as a witty contemporary homage and brilliant elaboration of Ravel’s “Bolero.” On its own terms, it repeatedly revved up its dance energy only to lose its moorings into cacophony, right the ship and do it again.

The topper was Garrick Ohlssen in the Chopin Piano Concerto No. 2. Ohlssen, a tall and imposing figure, constantly surprises with the gossamer sounds he can coax from the piano. He put that to good use in the winsome Larghetto and deftly shaped ornamentation in the speedier outer movements. He finished with a stunning encore of the stately Waltz in C-sharp minor, Op. 64, No. 2, in which no two iterations of the familiar tune were quite the same yet were all of equal precision and refinement.

Saturday nights at Harris Hall have been equally compelling the past few weeks with a series of unusual recitals. Two weeks ago, the Pacifica Quartet made a triumphant return to Aspen after 19 years, and last week, Augustin Hadelich, Joyce Yang and Pablo Sainz Villegas lifted the roof with their Latin-infused team recital. This past Saturday, guitarist Sharon Isbin and mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard went all Spanish.

Isbin is always a big draw, and Aspen was first to hear this recital, scheduled for her and the soprano to take on tour next spring. Spanish guitar music is in Isbin’s wheelhouse, and Leonard, whose mother is Argentine, put her Latin side and sultry voice to use in songs by Garcia Lorca, Falla and Monstalvatge. She relished every phrase, and Isbin’s sensitive accompaniment was equally penetrating.

The highlight was Falla’s “Siete Canciones Populares Espanolas,” which Leonard has sung often with piano or orchestra. The range, variety and personality she invested in the songs were stunning, from the most delicate lullaby (“Nana”) to the fiery flamenco-tinged finale (“Polo”). The Lorca songs, which the poet set himself to “borrowed” tunes, had a hypnotic intensity that the program wisely separated with several guitar solos. Alone, Isbin rendered Granados’ famous “Andaluza” and Segovia’s classic arrangement of Albeniz’s “Asturias” with improvisatory gestures in pastel colors, topping those with Tarregas’ soft-textured “Capricho Arabe.”

Most memorable for me was Rodrigo’s “Aranjuez, Ma Pensee,” a wistful poem by the composer’s wife (in French) set to the adagio from his familiar guitar concerto. The interplay of Leonard’s dark, creamy sound and Isbin’s immersive knowledge of the piece’s twists and turns was mesmerizing.

Earlier Saturday afternoon, another solidly packed faculty chamber recital finished on a high, with an energetic and beautifully shaped performance of the Schumann Piano Quintet with violinists David Coucheron and Cornelia Heard, violist James Dunham, cellist Brinton Smith and, stepping in for the missing Andres Haefliger, Anton Nel on piano. Earlier, clarinetist Joaquin Valdepenas joined Dunham and Nel to lend charm to four short Bruch pieces, and Sarah Saviet, the violinist in the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble, applied an astonishing variety of effects to Kaija Saariaho’s diaphanous “Graal Theatre,” with help from a 21-piece orchestra.

Conductor Hugh Wolff applied much physical energy to a varied chamber symphony program Friday that hit its highlights on two very different and highly listenable 20th-century pieces for orchestra. The concert opened with Ligeti’s lively and witty “Romanian Concerto” and concluded with a lovingly rendered “Appalachian Spring,” Copland’s iconic piece of Americana.

Ligeti’s all-orchestral piece from 1951, from a composer who delighted in startling listeners, honored but also poked fun at a genre of Eastern European rhapsodies and fantasies that Brahms, Liszt, Enesco and Ligeti’s compatriot Bartok made famous. It comes off on the surface as a relatively straightforward folk rhapsody until occasional phrases and “wrong notes” evocative of village bands blow a raspberry or two. The adagio, with its antiphonal horns, is especially charming, and the raucous finale couldn’t help but bring a grin. It was a delight from start to finish.

Wolff kept the Copland piece moving briskly, at times perhaps missing phrases that are better lingered over, but it was after all written as a ballet, and the more dramatic “dancy” portions came off best, especially the lively rendition of “Simple Gifts” near the end. Bil Jackson’s hushed clarinet solos were evocative.

Other portions of the concert had their downsides. Sarah Chang’s often rough treatment of Dvorak’s luscious violin concerto seldom let the beauty and charm shine through. And the string-orchestra version of the sextet that opens Strauss’s opera “Capriccio” turned muddy too often to reflect the paean to pure music that the composer intended.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 20 years. His reviews appear Tuesdays and Saturdays in The Aspen Times.