Review: String quartet, brass quintet make up for cancellations at Aspen Music Festival

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times

Soprano Deborah Voigt bowed out of a vocal recital Wednesday and pianist Andrés Haefliger never got to Aspen for his Thursday concert. But even though these two much-anticipated artists canceled their Aspen Music Festival appearances, there was still plenty to cheer about.

For anyone starved for star-quality solo playing, Augustin Hadelich channeled some sort of uncanny Nordic soul in his performance of the Sibelius Violin Concerto Wednesday with the all-student Philharmonic Orchestra. The American Brass Quintet introduced two new members and, if anything, a better-than-ever sound in its recital Monday. And the American String Quartet, in its only appearance this season Tuesday, delivered intense Beethoven and juicy Dvořák.

Hadelich applied impeccable technique and depth of understanding to Sibelius’ concerto in his appearance in the music tent. This is one of the great concertos. A memorable performance goes beyond virtuosic articulation and requires hesitations, headlong rushes, deft tweaking of dynamics, all those fleeting gestures that color the music with the feeling of Sibelius’ Finland and suggest the performer is improvising. The opening needs to appear as if out of a fog, the later dance-like music to reflect just the right combination of heft and deft. Hadelich got all of that, aided and abetted by conductor Hannu Lintu, currently music director of the Finnish Radio Symphony.

For an encore he made his violin dance through Paganini’s finger-busting Caprice No. 9, its dueling double-stops on the top two strings vs. the bottom two bringing smiles.

Although members of the brass ensemble occupy principal roles in the major orchestras that play Fridays and Sundays, Monday’s was their only program this summer as an ensemble. The group’s usual olio of contemporary and Renaissance-era music made a savory mix, and the new guys — Eric Reed on French horn and Louis Hanzlik on trumpet — proved adept at anything the music threw at them.

My favorites were the contemporary pieces. Osvaldo Lacerda’s 1991 cheeky Quinteto concertante was a delight for its tongue-in-cheek Brazilian vernacular dances and tunes. Eric Ewazen’s 1990 Frost Fire highlighted the players’ virtuosic side. The newest piece, Sebastian Currier’s Cadence, Fugue, Fade (2013) deftly explored a range of stunning effects and textures, far wider than you might think possible from five brass instruments.

Arrangements of Elizabethan “ayres” by Morley and madrigals by Gesualdo made for satisfying moments, but two Gabrieli canzoni, for 10 and 12 instruments, made for a big finish. Former members Raymond Mase (trumpet) and David Wakefield (horn) joined the quintet and the all-student Brazen Brass 5 to turn Harris Hall sonically into Venice’s Basicila San Marco.

Fresh from a concert tour of Israel (which thankfully ended before the current Gaza conflict erupted), the American String Quartet sounded fresh and invested intense concentration on Beethoven’s Op. 127,a quartet that starts off as an almost intellectual study and gradually deepens into a vast pool of emotion. To that end, their playing in the extended Adagio maintained the slow pulse and conjured (to me at least) an endless field of purple flowers. The contrast with the rapidly interweaving lines of the fugue that kicked off the Scherzo could not have been more sharply drawn. The finale blew fresh air over the proceedings, bringing things home with a country dance.

The good spirits carried over into the second half, where pianist Anton Nel joined the quartet for a romp through the Dvořák Piano Quintet in A major. The feeling of camaraderie and high spirits was palpable and the music just bloomed. This was ensemble playing at the highest level.

Voigt’s cancellation actually left intact most of Wednesday’s recital, titled “The Beautiful Voice.” Natalie Dewey, scheduled for a minor role in Carmen later this month, stepped in for Voigt in excerpts from the title role of Rufus Wainwright’s 2009 opera Prima Donna. In scenes with a soprano and baritone from the opera theater program Dewey gave Wainwright’s surprisingly tame music for the aging diva character a good go. Courtney Taylor as her maid and Craig Verm as her supercilious butler had more characterful music to chew on. Elizabeth Buccheri accompanied gamely on piano.

The second half excerpts from Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier went off as planned. Tenor Tyson Miller lent appropriate swagger to the Italian Tenor’s first-act aria, but the showstoppers were the “Presentation of the Rose” from Act II and the extended trio that concludes the opera. Mezzo-soprano Alexandra Schenk voiced Octavian’s music with precision, presence and a big sound. Soprano Elizabeth Sutphen’s lighter lyrical sound and pinpoint high notes were perfect for Sophie but Schenk and soprano Ashley Curling (as the Marschallin) could have held back a bit to blend better. Pianist William Billingham did a pretty fair imitation of a full orchestra in his accompaniment.

In the Coming Days

Sharon Isbin teams with the gorgeous sound of mezzo-soprano Isabel annual in her guitar recital Saturday in Harris Hall. Sunday Leonard Slatkin teams with the Festival Orchestra and an old friend, Garrick Ohlssen, on the Chopin Piano Concerto No. 2 and tempts the rain gods with Strauss’ “An Alpine Symphony” (in which is depicted a mountain storm). Monday night it’s the Percussion Ensemble, always an event.

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