Virtuosity from Haydn to jazz (and other contemporary music)
Special to the Aspen Times
The first half of the first full week of Aspen Music Festival concerts delivered its share of excitement, and one notable disappointment.
On the plus side, the Takács Quartet excelled in its program Wednesday, and the faculty’s chamber music recital Monday introduced Aspen audiences to several intriguing examples of contemporary music (and, as a lagniappe, a sensational harpist). On the down side, pianist Yundi didn’t live up to his hype — not even close.
Towering over it all, however, was the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, which covered a staggering range of jazz styles in a special event co-presented by the music festival and Jazz Aspen Snowmass on Monday night in the music tent. Led by trumpet genius Wynton Marsalis, the program focused on original works and compelling arrangements by members of the band, finishing with a blazing up-tempo romp through a Duke Ellington Cotton Club-era riff.
Among the highlights, alto saxophonist Ted Nash’s “Tryst With Destiny,” part of a 2014 suite inspired by historic speeches, rode the rhythms, rises and dips of a Jawaharlal Nehru oration to express the meaning of the Indian hero’s words brilliantly. Chris Crenshaw’s “The Prodigal Son: Your Arm’s Too Short to Box with God” found the lower brass showing off sassy licks and hard swing timing en route to a rousing gospel-like finish. Crenshaw’s own solo chattered, wailed and barked.
Singer René Marie joined the band for three suave and telling arrangements, including a sultry version of Cole Porter’s “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” and a wistful take on Hoagie Carmichael’s “Skylark.”
Marsalis himself makes his trumpet do things a brass instrument should be incapable of articulating. In three unforgettable extended solos, he made the music speak eloquently, swooping, strutting and insinuating. On the opening “Back to Basics,” from his 31/2-hour masterpiece “Blood on the Fields,” he made the instrument laugh and cry, all the while remaining totally musical and in the flow. On the fast-paced finale, he took inspiration from the double- and triple-tongued staccato phrases in chorus after chorus of kaleidoscopic spins, a celebration of virtuosity and swing. Disconcertingly, a significant portion of the audience starting filing out between pieces about two-thirds of the way through the 100-minute program. They missed a fiery finale. The Takács Quartet fashioned a supple, fleshy rendering of the Debussy quartet, all shimmering colors on the surface, a steely backbone at its core. The first movement got a serious take, but the second lightened up into a witty standoff between pizzicato and bowed phrases. The third movement glowed softly with rich harmonies and tonal deftness, and the finale glided smoothly until a suddenly vivid and energetic finish. The Takács captured the rhythm and wit of Haydn’s Quartet in G minor, “The Rider,” for a nice opener. After intermission they paid due respect to Beethoven’s Op. 59 No. 1, the first of the “Razumovsky” quartets, with perhaps more restraint than was necessary for a program finale. Still, it was music-making of a high order. Highlights of contemporary music on the chamber music program earlier Monday in Harris Hall included American composer Pierre Jalvert’s 2012 “Secret Alchemy,” a 17-minute study in medieval tropes updated for modern ears. Violinist Paul Kantor, violist James Dunham, cellist Desmond Hoebig and pianist Virginia Weckstrom gave it a nuanced reading. And in a U.S. premiere, Xinyan Li’s 2014 “Mongolian Impressions” played off the native music of the autonomous region in central China. Bassoonist Per Hannevold and a mix of students and faculty (a string quartet plus percussion) brought it to vivid life.
The all-student Contemporary Ensemble opened the proceedings with Perle’s quirky “Critical Moments 2,” and the pro trio of David Halen (violin), Richard Aaron (cello) and Yoheved Kaplinsky (piano) applied welcome restraint to Rachmaninov’s Trio Elegiaque in G minor. For those who stayed to the end, harpist Anneleen Lenaerts displayed dynamic finesse, nuance in articulation and jaw-dropping skill in Trneek’s arrangement of Smetana’s “The Moldau.” Evidence of rock-star Chinese pianist Yundi’s freshness and finesse can be heard on recordings and in live-performance YouTube videos. Little of that informed his Aspen appearance Tuesday in Harris Hall, however. That wondrous ability to make phrases liquid never showed up. The technical prowess was there, in the form of staccato clarity, but short on subtleties of dynamics and tone. He amped up mezzo-fortes into banging double fortes. Chopin nocturnes, for which he is famous, came off as brittle. Beethoven’s “Appassionata” sonata flew by too fast to capture details. Schumann’s Fantasie in C major yielded beauty only in the soft and tender finale. Best was a final romp through a finger-busting excerpt from Liszt’s “Venezia e Napoli.” Not to miss in the coming days: Festival favorites James Dunham (viola) and Anton Nel (piano) join the Takács tonight in Harris Hall, Dunham in Mozart’s wistful G minor Quintet and Nel in Franck’s symphonic Piano Quintet in F minor. Sunday afternoon, violinist Augustin Hadelich takes on the Beethoven concerto with the Festival Orchestra. Christian Arming conducts that and Richard Strauss’ “Thus Spake Zarathustra.” Try not to think of a certain classic science-fiction film during the opening fanfare.
Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 21 years. His reviews appear twice a week in The Aspen Times.
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