Aspen Music Fest review: Violinist ‘wins’ a Beethoven concerto comparison
August 15, 2017
Two great Beethoven concertos anchored the Aspen Music Festival's weekend proceedings in the Benedict Music Tent, both with soloists new to the festival. The violin concerto with the Aspen Festival Orchestra on Sunday afternoon provided the more substantial pleasures.
Violinist Sergey Khachatryan's tender approach to Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D major produced one sigh-inducing phrase after another, making the violin's sound dance deftly and gracefully whether the music was fast or slow.
And what a sound! Playing the same Guarneri instrument that once belonged to Eugène Ysaÿe, the great violinist of the early 20th century, Khachatryan brought out startling richness and boldness that could winnow to a wisp yet still be heard in all corners of the 2,000-seat music tent. His sense of phrasing, here hesitating for a split second, there letting a phrase race to its conclusion, always stayed within bounds and brought freshness to the familiar music.
As majestic as the outer movements were, the slow movement was most special. A stately tempo made time float. Conductor Rafael Payare, making his debut with this orchestra, employs an emphatic, demonstrative style. He's the chief conductor of the Ulster Orchestra and, incidentally, since 2013 the husband of cellist Alisa Weilerstein. Rail-thin with a shock of curly black hair, he went along with Khachatryan's delicately etched approach, although his body language said otherwise.
Khachatryan's encore, a sweet unaccompanied folk tune "Apricot Tree," from his native Armenia, put his quiet command of the instrument on display.
In the second half Payare, a product of Venezuela's La Sistema (the program that gave us Gustavo Dudamel), led a tempestuous performance of Richard Strauss' "Ein Heldenleben," storming the battlements in the big, loud sections but finding a semblance of suppleness in the quieter moments. Concertmaster Bing Wang handled the prominent violin solo at the center of this work with panache.
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The main event of Friday's all-Beethoven program in the tent introduced the German pianist Martin Helmchen to Aspen audiences with a sharply drawn if somewhat un-idiomatic traversal of the Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major. Helmchen fashioned moments of poetry, taking a cue from the piano's quiet, hesitant opening measures to avoid any sense of bombast. He played with restraint and clarity, even when the score unleashed itself into broad, fully Romantic gestures.
The result had its moments of brilliance, though for me oddly robotic at times, especially in the many long runs of 16th notes that pepper the score. They were so even and precise that I felt no discernible pulse within each gesture. Better was Helmchen's encore, Max Reger's piano transcription of Bach's Chorale Prelude "Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ," played with subtlety and poise.
Conductor Hans Graf opted for solid, conventionally shaped work throughout Friday's whole concert, avoiding any creative interpretation. The Austrian conductor, associated with the Houston Symphony since 2000, conjured a relaxed and pleasant atmosphere in the Symphony No. 6 "Pastoral." The "Coriolan" overture, which opened the concert, had a fine aura of portent.
Graf's conducting clipped off the highs and lows of tempo and texture in both the concerto and the symphony, leading to well-played but not memorable performances.
Saturday afternoon's chamber music recital offered a compelling mix, including a world premiere for baritone and string quartet that made three Edgar Allan Poe poems into a sort of classical rap. An atmospheric piece by an alumna of the festival and school's composing program, a lushly Romantic piece for solo harp preceded the final work, Schubert's "Trout" Quintet.
The pick of this grab bag was the world premiere, "Evermore," from the pen of the busy composer Mohammed Fairouz. George Abud, who has appeared with Tony Shaloub and Chita Rivera, injected drama into Poe's "Israfel," "Annabel Lee" and "The Raven" with a combination of spoken, semi-voiced and dramatic singing.
Fairouz's writing for the quartet served mainly as accompaniment, painted with polish and grateful harmonies. No doubt the piece would have had more depth if the composer had developed some of his musical ideas. But as a vehicle for Abud it was a hit.
The music in Hannah Lash's "Moth Sketches," which debuted in 2013, two years after her stint in Aspen, fluttered, vibrated and skittered until a gorgeous violin solo emerged from the fretful gestures. Seohee Min played the tune with warm tone and lovely legato. And then it disappeared into more nervous music.
In more conventional pieces, harp competition winner Adam Phan brought a firm touch and careful attention to dynamics with Salzédo's "Ballade," an early 20th-century piece that bloomed with French Impressionism and hints of Spanish music. To complete the afternoon's proceedings Joyce Yang (piano), Bing Wang (violin), James Dunham (viola), Brinton Smith (cello) and Bruce Bransby (double bass) invested solid musicianship and plenty of energy in Schubert's familiar "Trout" music.
NOT TO MISS IN THE COMING DAYS
Mozart's "La clemenza di Tito" opens a three-performance run tonight in Wheeler Opera House (see related story). But you'll have to choose between it and pianist Yekwon Sunwoo, winner of this year's Cliburn Competition, playing at the same time in Harris Hall. Wednesday evening violinist David Bowlin, replacing an indisposed Veronika Eberle, leads two different groups in Schönberg's ultra-Romantic Verklärte Nacht and Berg's thorny Chamber Concerto. There will be a bass-clef string virtuoso summit when Alisa Weilerstein plays cello in a Rossini duet with bassist Edgar Meyer on his eclectic program Thursday. And Friday evening Weilerstein plays the Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1 on the Chamber Orchestra program in the tent.
Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 23 years. His reviews appear Tuesdays and Saturdays in The Aspen Times.
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