Review: Tale of two violins enlivens the weekend
Special to the Aspen Times
Saint-Saens’ Violin Concerto No. 3 in B minor requires rock-solid technique and the ability to make the instrument sing beautifully when the melodies spin themselves out lyrically. Large doses of elegance help, too. As it happens, Joshua Bell fulfills those requirements, as he demonstrated Friday night in a nearly full Benedict Music Tent.
Conductor Robert Spano, the festival’s music director, kept the chamber-size orchestra on its toes and dancing deftly behind Bell. The result was an incandescent performance, colorful and seductive.
The piece fits neatly into the standard format of a late 19th-century concerto — broad strokes in the opening movement, followed by a languid slow movement and a lively finale — and challenges the soloist with rapid scales, lightning arpeggios, double stops and complex phrases on high harmonics.
But Saint-Saens weaves in enough delightful turns in the music to keep the virtuosity fresh. The violin’s first appearance, for example, keeps the soloist playing on the lowest string as the theme expands ever higher before rocketing up an arpeggio into the highest notes on the instrument. Bell nailed it without working up a sweat, and we knew we were in for joyful ride.
For each virtuoso turn by the soloist, something interesting pops up in the orchestra. Sometimes the melody gets tossed back and forth between the soloist and portions of the orchestra even within the same phrase. This was especially beguiling in the Andante quasi allegretto at the center of the piece. One by one, the principal woodwind players played catch with Bell as the theme ping-ponged seamlessly, most notably in the final measures. Bell played delicate arpeggios in the highest harmonics, doubled by a clarinet several octaves below, against a soft bed of string chords. Magical stuff.
The finale zipped along, the orchestra carrying the melodic load while Bell fluttered around it all like a butterfly.
That music seemed to fit perfectly against a sunny, mild early evening that even allowed those listening from the lawn to hear every nuance. Mother Nature also must be a Mahler fan, because she wrapped the composer’s Symphony No. 4 in same blanket of silence.
This allowed the beauty of the music, the gentlest of Mahler’s nine completed symphonies, to float easily through the air. The score is not without its edgy moments, but Spano opted to aim for as much loveliness as possible. A little more angst in the first three movements, gorgeous as they were, would have set off the transcendental finale. As the voice of the angel, soprano Sarah Schafer offered liquid tone and vocal sweetness, the symphony finishing like one of the white clouds dotting the blue skies.
Sunday’s Aspen Festival Orchestra concert delivered some of the best conducting of the year (so far). Vasily Petrenko applied a welcome native accent to precision and communication on a program of big Russian works.
Petrenko got the dark and brooding Shostakovich Symphony No. 8 to rumble and agonize, turning from angst to cries of despair, often voiced by some of the individuals featured less often in the orchestra. Superb work on piccolo by Johanna Gruskin and on English horn by Michelle Pan illuminated their moments in the spotlight as vividly as did the regular woodwind principals in theirs. The brass contributed incisive playing. The full orchestra found individual colors for each movement, eventually finishing with glimmers of quiet, subtle, autumnal and—most welcome—beautiful hues.
In the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto the soloist, Midori, kept her head bowed so low she seemed to be holding the chin rest with her left cheek. She seemed to turn inward, physically melding with her instrument. Though visually this excluded the audience, the music spilled out with presence, if not all of its fireworks and dazzle. Petrenko coaxed idiomatic playing from the orchestra and synched in tempo with the soloist with every shift in speed. The result was sense of perfection, albeit without a wild edge.
Saturday’s events in Harris Hall included works by two living composers in the afternoon faculty chamber music program, and an evening performance notable for a take-no-prisoners Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 by Yeol Eum Son.
Alan Fletcher, president and CEO of the festival, was one of the living composers. Michael Rosinek (clarinet), Nancy Goeres (bassoon) and Anton Nel (piano) brought out the charm in the 10-minute work that owes more than little to the sort of grace Schubert found in Gretchen’s spinning wheel. Earlier, Donald Crockett conducted the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble in his “to airy thinness beat,” a 2009 work that featured the solo viola of Andrew Stock. Though his program note speaks of seeking tonal beauty, restlessness was the music’s primary effect.
In between, three singers from the Aspen Opera Theater Center and three clarinetists combined for six delightful little examples of Mozart in a casual mood. To finish the program violinist Alexander Kerr and cellist Desmond Hoebig joined Nel for an athletic romp through Brahms’ Piano Trio No. 1.
With her Berlin-based teacher Arie Vardi conducting an ad hoc student orchestra, Son applied impressive technique and command of piano tone to the Beethoven concerto. Together they played two pianos with the orchestra in a J.S. Bach concerto for two keyboards in C minor that was about as far from the modern “historically informed” style than one could get. A little more brightness would have helped.
NOT TO MISS IN THE COMING DAYS
As if tonight’s Emerson String Quartet recital celebrating their 40th anniversary in Aspen and Friday’s appearance by Gil Shaham in the thorny Sessions Violin Concerto weren’t enough, insiders are buzzing about hearing the young piano phenom Behzod Abduraimov on Thursday night in Harris Hall in a program that ranges from a gentle Bach Siciliano to a flame-throwing Prokofiev sonata. Don’t take Wednesday off, either. Violinist William Hagen, a first prize winner as a student here, and violist James Dunham play Mozart with the Aspen Philharmonic in the tent before a tasty program of mostly vocal music derived from Shakespeare follows in Harris Hall.
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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