Aspen Music Festival 2019: Ten memorable performances
Special to The Aspen Times
Bolstered by creative programming, a season theme that proved more thought-provoking than anticipated, and artists both familiar and new to the Aspen Music Festival, the 2019 summer season delivered more highs and fewer lows than usual.
The theme, “Being American,” was so broad that it could have filled every concert even without the meat of most classical music presentations (Mozart, Beethoven and the famous Romantic composers). Aspen has always actively sought new music from contemporary American composers, and there wasn’t much of an uptick in Copland, Ives, Barber and Gershwin, who pepper programs in most seasons.
It’s a measure of just how rich and savory the American music scene has become that some of the best moments of the season sprang from the theme, including a sensational new piece by Christopher Theofanidis, composer-in-residence at the festival. With its multi-layered exploration of what percussionists can do when you put them in front of a big orchestra, “Drum Circles” connected with an enthusiastic audience Aug. 11.
The piece wove together several of the threads in this season. Aside from the American flavor of fresh music co-commissioned by the festival, the piece introduced talent new to many of us. The Percussion Collective played with an intoxicating mix of musicianship and showmanship, and delivered the encore of the year — Astor Piazzolla’s “Le Grand Tango” arranged for four mallet instruments.
Percussion stood out in more concerts than unusual. A parade of fine timpanists in both the Sunday Festival Orchestra and the Friday Chamber Orchestra demonstrated what brilliant talent can add to an orchestra’s impact. So did talented guest principal percussionists Cynthia Yeh from the Chicago Symphony and Jacob Nessly from the San Francisco Symphony. The annual percussion ensemble recital Aug. 5 introduced a richly tapestried concerto for violin and percussion orchestra by Kati Ogócs, with violinist Jennifer Koh.
Cellist Alisa Weilerstein topped off her July 25 recital with Viktor Derevianko’s delicious reduction of the Shostakovich Symphony No. 15 in A major. It celebrated the composer’s witty and often delicate writing for percussion. Visiting artist Colin Currie and festival stalwarts Jonathan Haas and Douglas Howard chimed, tinkled and tumbled engagingly along with Weilerstein, violinist Philippe Quint and pianist Inon Barnatan.
Not all the programming worked so well. The long-anticipated Aspen debut of “Penelope,” André Previn’s last work, fell flat. Even with Renée Fleming singing and the Emerson String Quartet and pianist Simone Dinnerstein doing their darndest, the monodrama never attained liftoff. It wasn’t the artists’ fault. The piece (completed by Previn’s longtime assistant) felt underdone.
Conducting was a mixed bag through the season. On the plus side, regulars Leonard Slatkin, Nicolas McGegan, Cristian Macelaru, Michael Stern, and Jane Glover came through as expected. Newcomers Erik Nielsen and Broadway veteran Andy Einhorn (in both Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” and a stunning “South Pacific” in the tent) made a splash. Other maestros took the edge off of (and in some cases undermined) such high-profile pieces as Mahler’s Symphony No. 7, Bernstein’s “West Side Story” suite, Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, Barber’s Violin Concerto, Brahms’ Variations on a Theme of Haydn, even turning that hoariest of chestnuts, Bizet’s “Carmen” Suite, into a leaden slog.
Voices starred more than ever this year, perhaps a reflection of festival CEO Alan Fletcher’s love for opera. Voices saved the day in the season finale, Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection” (in this case both soloists and chorus), kicking the music into gear in the final 30 minutes. A variety of chamber music concerts featured worthy performances from Aspen Opera Center singers.
In its last season under longtime director Edward Berkeley, the opera program honored the American theme with respectable productions of “Night Music,” a one-night performance of a compelling new opera, “Proving Up,” by Missy Mazzoli and a lively cabaret evening of songs by American theater composers titled “Red, Hot and Blue.” The best, though, came when Glover led a gloriously idiomatic run of Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” in the Wheeler Opera House.
Next year, soprano Renée Fleming and conductor Patrick Summers take responsibility for the voice program. Announced plans are still vague. Berkeley plans to be here only for a few weeks.
One noticeable trend disconcerted audiences — eliminating applause breaks in recitals between pieces to showcase connections in the music. Pianist Daniil Trifonov did it, and so did Simone Dinnerstein. The JCT trio even eliminated a programmed intermission, which shut out more than a few latecomers for the entire concert. Artists may want to rethink this approach.
Worthy of note is the work of pianist Anton Nel, the hardest-working man at the festival. He collaborated with an A-list of local and visiting artists in Harris Hall and the music tent for 16 unique performances in 7 and a half weeks, which must be a festival record. One highlight was his work with harpsichordist Jory Vinikour and harpist Anneleen Lenaerts in Frank Martin’s quirky but tasty “Petite Simphonie Concertante” with the Chamber Orchestra on July 19.
Here’s my list of 10 memorable performances from the 2019 season.
July 5 — Abetted by conductor McGegan, flugelhorn masters Tamás Pálfalvi and Stuart Stephenson made mellow brilliance out of Vivaldi’s Concerto in G minor, originally written for cellos.
July 9 — Yefim Bronfman took hold of the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1, made it stand up straight, and highlighted all of its subtleties in a riveting performance.
July 21—Leonard Slatkin corralled the Festival Orchestra into some of its best playing of the year in a program that climaxed with a noble and heartbreakingly expressive performance of Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations.
July 22 — “South Pacific,” Rodgers and Hammerstein’s trailblazing musical from the 1940s, proved its relevance to today in a stellar production in the tent with Broadway voices. Conductor Andy Einhorn led the way for an orchestra and chorus drawn from the festival’s students.
July 25 — Alisa Weilerstein, and that marvelous version of the Shostakovich Symphony No. 15.
Aug. 3 and 6 — Nikolai Lugansky dazzled piano lovers again with a brilliant run through Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini on Sunday and, in a recital three days later, a Skryabin Sonata No. 3 for the ages (bracketed by complementary works by Franck and Debussy).
Aug. 5 — The Percussion Ensemble introduced Jaime Cardenas-España, whose emotionally potent singing and marimba playing made the Chilean folk ballad “El Gavilán” unforgettable. And Kati Agócs’ fluent concerto for violin and percussion orchestra. And Antheil’s raucous and joyful Ballet Mécanique.
Aug. 7 — Augustin Hadelich’s recital delivered one delight after another. John Adams’ “Road Movies” gave Aspen audiences one of the few tastes of this composer fundamental to American music of the past 30-plus years. (For that matter we didn’t hear nearly enough Philip Glass or Steve Reich either, giants both.)
Aug. 11 — Theofanidis’ “Drum Circles” with the Percussion Collective bracketed a rewarding Festival Orchestra program, ably conducted by Michael Stern, that finished with Bartók’s colorful “Miraculous Mandarin.”
Aug. 18 — In the season finale, J.S. Bach’s early cantata, “Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit,” outshone Mahler on musical values and a stunningly refined performance by an original instruments ensemble and Seraphic Fire, the professional chorus visiting from Florida.
Next year’s theme celebrates the 250th anniversary year of Beethoven’s birth. No doubt the programming will probe well beyond this seminal composer’s greatest hits, perhaps even presenting music he influenced in the two centuries since he lived. “Infinite Jest” and String Quartet No. 2 would go a long way toward rectifying the way John Adams’ best music was ignored in this year’s celebration.
Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 25 years.
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