Unexpected delights at Aspen Festival Orchestra concert

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times

Sometimes the most unexpected pleasures linger in memory. Few people at Sunday’s Aspen Festival Orchestra concert will soon forget pianist Yefim Bronfman’s encore. As steller as Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 3 was, the encore, Chopin’s Etude in F, Op. 10, No. 8, left jaws agape.

Bronfman, known for power, seemed barely to touch the keys as this fleet, devilishly challenging piece sprinkled fairy dust in barely a whisper. He floated in an ineffable middle ground between legato and staccato, every note distinct. The final flourish couldn’t have been more delicate.

He showed similar restraint in the concerto, Bartok’s most sweet-tempered, achieving expression by contrasting crisp rhythmic bite with supple chords and softer phrases. The opening theme, a folk-like tune, emerged from the veiled textures like a beam of light. Despite its quiet dynamic, the hushed chorale of the slow movement achieved a remarkable sonority. The pianist made the finale dance deftly.

Textures in the orchestra could have been more transparent, and conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya, although he kept pace, never quite mirrored the delicacy of Bronfman’s articulation. The spotlight remained on the piano in this case just fine.

“Movements for a Clarinet Concerto” opened the second half of the concert. Faculty artist Joaquin Valdepenas played Colin Matthews’ 2007 “completion” of Britten’s sketches started for Benny Goodman. The lively music expands upon a sort of arpeggio fanfare, with bouncy rhythmic help from the orchestra. Valdepenas made the challenging stuff for the soloist fun for the listener.

Harth-Bedoya was at his best in the final work on the program, Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloe” Suite No. 2, shaping a series of distinct episodes and providing a suitable setting for the solos, especially Bonita Boyd’s alluring flute. In the opener, Richard Strauss’ “Don Juan,” he managed to keep the sprawling wild horse of a tone poem from getting away. Oboist Elaine Douvas and concertmaster Bing Wang distinguished themselves with their solos.

Friday’s Aspen Chamber Orchestra concert revealed a warmer side of Benjamin Britten’s music to the Aspen audience. “Illuminations,” an early work (1939), falls gently on the ears and showcases many of the elements that made him one of the great opera composers. Soprano Nicole Cabell voiced the music with such clarity and personality that the obscure meanings of Rimbeau’s poetry didn’t matter. The colors Britten could draw from string orchestra provided indelible character.

James Gaffigan, like Harth-Bedoya an early product of Aspen’s conducting program now working extensively abroad, did his best work on this piece. The strings sounded luminous, the pacing ideal for the cracking score.

Unfortunately, the Schumann Piano Concerto, with Garrick Ohlsson substituting for Andreas Haefliger, suffered from lack of coordination between soloist and orchestra. Neither lyricism nor verve came through in a cautious performance. Schumann’s “Manfred Overture,” which opened the concert, whizzed by so quickly that details were lost, and in Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 “Classical,” he seemed so concerned with articulating the notes that the Haydn-like charm, transparency and rhythmic buoyancy were only a wistful hope.

Edgar Meyer’s annual recital Saturday night also took a different turn. The double-bass virtuoso usually shares the stage here with other musicians, in the past jazz bassist Christian McBride, banjo master Bela Fleck and mandolin artist Chris Thile. This time two members of the Amphion String Quartet, violinist Katie Hyun and cellist Mihai Marica, regular collaborators with Meyer, joined him for superbly rendered music by Rossini, Bach and Meyer himself.

On the classical side, Rossini’s Duetto for Cello and Bass in D major brimmed with the composer’s signature brio and flair for heady fioratura. Sometimes it was hard to tell who was playing higher, Meyer or Marica. A trio sonata J.S. Bach originally wrote for two flutes and continuo was absolutely mesmerizing in a violin-cello-bass instrumentation, especially with such unanimity of articulation, phrasing and rhythmic lift.

Even more impressive, Hyun and Marica showed no difficulty at all getting into the spirit of Meyer’s pieces, written in his signature combination of Tennessee vernacular and classical structure. The music seems affable and easygoing at first but soon deepens into engaging intricacy and virtuosity. Hyun swung like a veteran fiddler in excerpts from Concert Duo for Violin and Double Bass (1998) and executed smile-inducing flourishes and harmonies in Trio No. 3 for Violin, Cello and Double Bass (1988), while Marica and Meyer explored the extremities of their instruments’ range.

As a solo instrument the bass has a soft sound, thus creating an intimate musical connection with an audience. This performance kept that intimacy even with the violin and cello.

What not to miss in the coming days

Inon Barnatan opens his appealing recital program tonight with Ronald Stevenson’s piano fantasy on “Peter Grimes,” an extra souvenir from that fabulous recent performance in the tent, finishing with Ravel’s fiendishly difficult transcription of “La Valse.” Speaking of big-boned chamber music, Chausson’s Concert for Violin, Piano and String Quartet tops off a recital Wednesday by violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenbergh and pianist Anne-Marie McDermott. The much-anticipated special event by the Emerson on Thursday introduces the string quartet’s new cellist, Paul Watkins.