Review: Spano, Aspen Music Festival Orchestra find the hot buttons for Mahler 3rd
Special to the Aspen Times
Any performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 in D minor — his longest — is an Occasion with a capital “O.” Its six movements cover 100 minutes, culminating in a finale that spans nearly a half-hour of slow music, gradually deepening into a fervent expression of spiritual ecstasy, finally reaching several majestic climaxes. Along the way, nearly every principal and section of the orchestra steps into the spotlight.
Conductor Robert Spano, the festival’s music director, went about managing this potentially unwieldy enterprise with a winning combination of directness and expansiveness. Although the long opening movement seemed to bounce from one idea to the next, he pulled all the pieces together beautifully for the rest, each movement building on elements presented in the first part.
Once that process started, the progression gained a sense of inevitability. The second movement began with a delicate opening dance, the third benefiting from a glorious offstage song-like post horn solo (played with beautiful sound, accuracy and grace by Kevin Cobb). Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke sang the fourth’s stone-faced warning of Nietzsche’s “Midnight Song” with richness around a core of steel. Sprightly singing from both children’s and women’s choruses illuminated the fifth movement’s references to bells and angels, with more earthly interpolations sonorously sung by Cooke.
The finale was remarkable for its unity of purpose, as each section of the brass took its turn taking the lead in chorales and slow fanfares. Karin Bliznik’s supple phrasing and silvery trumpet sound glimmered atop round after round of gleaming brass statements. John Zirbel shaped his French horn solos with his usual flair and accuracy, and Michael Powell lavished polish and personality on his exposed trombone solos.
In contrast to all this grandeur, violinist Augustin Hadelich’s recital Saturday night in Harris Hall brought a sense of fun to music that had roots in both the ports of Buenos Aires and the chamber music of Europe. On a semi-darkened stage, Hadelich, pianist Joyce Yang and guitarist Pablo Sainz Villegas performed a series of short pieces that centered on tango in the salon style.
The most riveting moments involved duets. Hadelich and Villegas made Astor Piazzola’s 1986 “Histoire du Tango” spring to life with thrusting musical gestures played with deep wells of soul. The program separated the three parts of American Andre Previn’s “Tango Song and Dance” suite, written in 1997 for him and Anne-Sophie Mutter to play, as a sort of framing device. Hadelich and Joyce Yang were especially in sync on the virtuosic challenges of the final dance.
Each took a solo turn, as well. Villegas made the Spanish composer Rodrigo’s “Invocacion y danza” into a moody, intoxicating 10 minutes. Yang’s blistering traversal of Ginastera’s “Danzas Argentinas” was nothing short of a tour de force. Hadelich lavished brilliant playing on the Belgian composer Ysaye’s Sonata for Unaccompanied Violin in E major, a piece in the form of a habanera. They concluded with an arrangement of Heitor Villa-Lobos’ famous “Bachianas Brasilieras No. 5,” with the violin in the role of the singer and the guitar and piano bringing lighter texture to the composer’s original scoring for a bevy of cellists.
Friday’s chamber-orchestra program opened with a deft orchestration by Alan Fletcher, the festival’s CEO and a composer in his own right, of Debussy’s wistful suite “Six epigraphes antiques.” It made a stark contrast to Augusta Read Thomas’ Cello Concerto No. 3 “Legend of the Phoenix,” which featured longtime festival favorite Lynn Harrell. In the program note, Thomas said that bringing out the singing qualities of Harrell’s playing was one of her goals, but her often spiky orchestral music tended to overwhelm Harrell. The piece had its moment, and it was full of color.
The star of that program was Gershwin’s suite from his opera “Porgy and Bess.” Titled “Catfish Row,” it included several of the hit songs and some of the delicious scene-setting music set in the rundown neighborhood where the title characters lived. Austrian conductor Christian Arming showed a disarming enthusiasm for the jazzy rhythms, earthy smears and harmonic richness of Gershwin’s iconically American music, and the principals in the orchestra responded with idiomatic playing. Of special note was “I Got Plenty of Nuttin’,” which paired the banjo of Wilson Harwood with some funky clarinet commentary by Bil Jackson. The lean and muscular brass section sounded at times like it could have stood in for the Ellington band.
In the coming days
The American String Quartet makes its only appearance this season tonight in Harris Hall, with pianist Anton Nel joining them in the Dvorak Quintet. Voices of the Opera Center join soprano Deborah Voigt in music from operas by Rufus Wainwright and Richard Strauss Wednesday night. Pianist Andres Haefliger’s recital Thursday night contrasts classics of Beethoven and Schubert with Berio’s modernist miniatures.
Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 20 years. His reviews appear Tuesdays and Saturdays in The Aspen Times.
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