Aspen Music Festival review: A dazzling debut for Esther Yoo; saxophone concerts to spice up weekend

Harvey Steiman/Special to The Aspen Times

The American violinist Esther Yoo made a memorable Aspen recital debut Tuesday in Harris Hall, finding fresh interpretations in the sonatas of Debussy and Grieg, introducing captivating music by the Korean composer Jeong Kyu Park, and along the way applying bravura technique with the clear purpose of delivering the music’s message rather than showing off.

The music seemed to reach directly from Yoo’s heart to the audience’s.

Debussy’s Violin Sonata flowed with interpretive ideas that brought out both the French savor of the lyric melodies and the juicy pungency of some of the harmonies, all of a piece. The soloist and pianist Zee Zee (both are members of the Z.E.N. Trio) clicked smoothly on every turn of the music.

Grieg’s Violin Sonata No. 3 in C minor was just as delightful. Yoo and Zee captured the Nordic aspects of the folk song-saturated music, made it dance nimbly in the softer sections, drew out long lines in the slow movements, and rose to impressive climaxes in the jaunty finale.

Although Yoo’s playing on the opening work, Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 8 in G major, was fine, this interpretation felt studied, at least compared with the others. (Zee’s soft touch in this music did not help).

“Toad,” Park’s six-minute essay on a lugubrious children’s song, found Yoo and Zee exploring the expressive range of both instruments. It was a dazzler. Yoo’s ability to shift seamlessly from lyric sweetness to eye-popping technical brilliance, especially in music high at the top of the instrument’s range, paid dividends here. This combination was especially evident in the final piece, Vieuxtemps’ finger-busting take on “Yankee Doodle.” The late replacement for a Tchaikovsky scherzo ended the program with humor and flair.

The encore was Park’s sensitive arrangement of the tender Korean folk song “Miyang Arirang” that morphed into jazzy razzle dazzle. It made a lovely dessert.

Wednesday’s Special Event benefit in Harris Hall featured soprano Renée Fleming and baritone Rod Gilfry, who triumphed so thoroughly Sunday in a George O’Keeffe-inspired song cycle with the Aspen Festival Orchestra. This time they delivered an hour of Broadway songs with panache.

Opera singers and Broadway are no strangers to each other. Fleming starred in “Carousel” for five months on Broadway in 2018. Gilfry portrayed Emile de Becque in Lincoln Center Theater’s touring production of “South Pacific” from 2009 to 2011, a role originated by bass Ezio Pinza in 1949.

With both Fleming and Gilfry already in town to sing with the Aspen Chamber Symphony Friday, it was a no-brainer for the festival to dragoon them into performing an evening of Broadway classics (and a few choice rarities) for the fund-raiser. And indeed, they seemed as delighted to do it as the full audience was to hear it.

As Fleming noted in her welcome, unlike today’s Broadway composers who write for amplified voices, composers of the mid-twentieth century, among them Richard Rodgers, Frederick Loewe, George Gershwin and Frank Loesser, “wrote for voices like ours.”

Right from the start, Gilfry found the balance between crooning and full-on operatic climaxes in Lerner and Loewe’s “Almost Like Being in Love,” and when Fleming joined in for the second half of the duet, she was right on the same page. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Some Enchanted Evening” showed the nuances and depth of understanding that Gilfry gained from singing the role it was written for. He was just as assured, and suave, in the Gershwin brothers’ “Embraceable You.”

Gilfry sang his solo numbers — Loesser’s “Joey, Joey, Joey” and the Gershwins’ “By Strauss” — with gorgeous tone and understanding. For her part, Fleming delivered a lovely medley pairing “Winter” with “Love and Love Alone,” songs written by John Kander for Chita Rivera in “The Visit” (2018), and a wry, self-deprecating piece by Andrew Lippa, who wrote “Diva” for her to sing at a concert supporting women in 2020.

Rodgers’ ageless duets came off even better. “People Will Say We’re In Love” got a sly reading from the singers, and “Climb Every Mountain” managed to stop shy of declamatory excess as a program finale.

Festival music director Robert Spano displayed a real affinity for the rhythms and ebbs and flows of these songs, even punctuating the first encore with juicy interpolations. The singers dropped in chuckle-worthy asides as they sparred in Irving Berlin’s witty “Anything You Can Do.” For a final encore, they sang the Waltz Scene from Lehar’s operetta “The Merry Widow” (in the original German, not in the many English translations). After all, this was an opera audience, and they responded to the heightened musical style with enthusiasm.

Thursday’s Pacifica Quartet recital was a strange one, centering on Jennifer Higdon’s “1993 Voices for String Quartet,” an odd duck that the Pacifica has championed over the years. They sandwiched that piece with relatively rarely heard works by Haydn and Dvořák. The ensemble, usually exemplary in its technical execution, stumbled a few times along the way. They also seemed to over-emphasize musical gestures, making for an unsettling evening.

Some of the highlights included the second movement of the Haydn Quartet in C major op. 20 no. 2, with its grand monophonic statement leading to a broad Adagio. That came off with a freshness that the busy first movement didn’t quite get. The second movement of the Dvořák A-flat major quartet (the last one the composer finished), a Czech furiant dance at breakneck pace, sprang to life with lots of spice.

The Higdon started with an all-out assault of biting dissonance and hectic rhythms, which faded away into a softer, more musical language in the second movement, turning to a long moment of serenity in the finale. It had the effect of going toward a destination, something too many compositions in the 1990s were reluctant to do, but, for me, the payoff wasn’t quite enough.

The encore, however, hit all the right notes. The simple and exquisite Andante Moderato from the mid-20th-century Black composer Florence Price’s String Quartet in G major was played with a sense of calm and emotional clarity, fashioned of simple cloth rather than classical era elegance or angular modernity. It felt right.


A couple of world premieres by saxophonists spice up this weekend. Today’s chamber music concert at Harris Hall includes “Cries, Sighs and Dreams,” written and played by saxophonist Steven Banks, and Sunday’s Festival Orchestra program in the tent opens with “Back,” by Shelley Washington. Pianist Inon Barnatan appears in both programs, playing the Schumann Piano Quartet in E-Flat today and Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini tomorrow, Ludovic Morlot conducting. Pianist Lise de la Salle’s tasty program Monday ranges from Ravel to Art Tatum with stops along the way for Falla, Piazzolla and Ginastera.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 29 years. His reviews appear Tuesdays and Saturdays in The Aspen Times.


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