Aspen Music Fest review: A tale of two symphonies
July 31, 2018
Two different conductors led two very different symphonies two days apart in the Benedict Music Tent over the weekend. The results were polar opposites, and not just because the composers wrote them almost exactly 200 years apart.
Vasily Petrenko shaped Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 (1812) into a nimble performance Friday night, the Aspen Chamber Symphony a miracle of clarity and momentum. Music director Robert Spano and the much larger Aspen Festival Orchestra on Sunday hammered away at Christopher Theofanidis' Symphony No. 1 (2011) in a loud, louder and loudest performance that came off as dense and ponderous.
Petrenko, music director of the Oslo and Royal Liverpool philharmonic orchestras, kept the musicians on their toes Friday. In the first movement he set a blistering pace in Symphony No. 7's deftly dancing 6/8, ratcheted up the intensity in the "slow" movement (marked Allegretto), kept the Scherzo charging ahead. In the Allegro finale he whipped a tiring orchestra into a frenzied finish. Kudos to all the musicians for keeping pace and maintaining a pleasing balance to the end.
Spano knows his way around the Theofanidis symphony. He conducted its premiere and recorded it in 2011 in his role as the Atlanta Symphony music director. Sunday it emerged as an assault of rough sound. The work's spaciousness and carefully delineated layers were missing in action. It hardly breathed. Anyone who wonders why this piece was served up on a program with a crowd-pleasing Tchaikovsky piano concerto should seek out Spano's compelling recording on YouTube. It's a totally different thing when the work's elements come through clearly.
(For the record, while the audience inside responded enthusiastically to the music's blast, those outside the tent liked it better with the volume a notch or two lower.)
Both programs looked good on paper, and went pretty much along the same lines as the featured symphonies, Friday with finesse, Sunday with muscle.
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The Friday program began with four "Songs of the Auvergne," French folk music set to Canteloube's atmospheric orchestrations. Soprano Golda Schultz graced the music with silvery tone, attention to text and a winning personality. Schultz, who marked herself as a future star here in Aspen in 2010 and 2011 as Rosina in "Ghosts of Versailles" and Alice in "Falstaff," has blossomed into a bona fide international star. If Petrenko seemed more concerned at first with orchestral colors than allowing space for Schultz's magnificent singing, the last couple of songs found a comfortable balance.
There were no such problems with Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3, which followed. Petrenko set the tone with a steady pulse, and reminded us why he is among the most exciting conductors today. In full command of technique and form, pianist Inon Barnatan told the musical story with eloquence and tremendous presence. For an encore he blazed through the finale of Beethoven's Sonata No. 6 with eye-popping ease.
Schultz returned for a sensuous rendition of Mozart's concert aria, "Ch'io mi scordi di te … Non temer, amato bene," Barnatan providing lapidary contributions from the piano and Petrenko drawing stylish playing from the orchestra.
The Sunday program preceded the symphony with another piece new to Aspen audiences, "Isola" by Finnish composer Sebastian Fagerlund, who like Theofanidis is in residence this summer in the festival's composition program. The Stravinsky-like rhythmic vitality almost cut through the dense textures of the orchestral playing. The musical colors blended when they wanted to spin like a kaleidoscope.
Pianist Behzod Abduraimov, who can whale away with the best of them, relished the big gestures but showed how he can coax deftness in quiet or quick passages in the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1. The thick orchestral playing, while viscerally exciting, seldom let Tchaikovsky's colors come through.
Violinist Robert McDuffie was the focus of a Saturday evening program celebrating Harris Hall's 25th year. Since the acoustically pristine auditorium opened in 1993, he has played dozens of recitals and conducted annual master classes. Saturday he delivered his best concert here in recent years. Surrounded by a bevy of young musicians, he excelled in an all-violin Prokofiev duo with rising star Aubree Oliverson and led a joyful romp of a d'Indy string sextet.
The climax was a muscular, hard-driving, thrilling traversal of Philip Glass's Violin Concerto No. 1. Norman Huynh (who spent the summer of 2016 as a conducting fellow in the Aspen program) drew a fully committed performance from the ad hoc all-student orchestra, with all the meter shifts, turnabouts in dynamics and pulsing rhythms coming through ecstatically. McDuffie rode above all that with dazzling playing and a thorough understanding of just how mind-blowing Glass' music can be.
NOT TO MISS IN COMING DAYS
Harris Hall is busy with three very different works this week. Cellist Alisa Weilerstein, whom Aspen audience have seen grow into a top-tier musician, takes on all six of Bach's unaccompanied cello suites tonight. The American String Quartet makes its annual appearance Wednesday night with works by Debussy, Shostakovich and Brahms. Bernstein's surprisingly funny and gratifyingly tuneful dysfunctional-marriage opera, "Trouble in Tahiti," takes the stage Thursday.
Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 23 years. His reviews appear in The Aspen Times on Tuesdays and Saturdays.
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