Aspen Music Festival Review: A puzzling debut by the Van Cliburn winner
Special to The Aspen Times
The Aspen Music Festival has a long and rich connection with the Van Cliburn piano competition offering a prime-time recital by winners every four years. This year’s winner, the 18-year-old Korean Yunchan Lim, stirred up a storm of anticipation with performances in Texas that wowed the judges and fellow pianists alike. As expected, every seat in Harris Hall was occupied with listeners on the edges of their seats when he strode onstage Thursday, took a seat in a straight-backed chair, and started paying Brahms.
I was primed to experience the thrill of a new genius in this, his first recital in the United States. What came out, however, both thrilled and puzzled me.
I did not hear the utter command and clarity that characterized his work at the Cliburn (which can be streamed for free on medici.tv). From my seat in row M in Harris Hall loud passages clanged, unlike the pristine and thoughtful work I heard in the live videos. Delicate flourishes here were softly engaging at one point, mushy when they sped up. Balances between busier passages in the left hand lacked the clarity that can be relished on video. Contrasts in both dynamics and texture felt exaggerated.
He chose a challenging program of less-famous works by familiar composers, beginning with Brahms’ Four Ballades and ending with Beethoven’s 15 Variations and a Fugue in E-flat major, the “Eroica Variations.” In between came Mendelssohn’s Fantasia in F-sharp minor and Skryabin’s Piano Sonata No.2, also called “Fantasia.” The pianistic story-telling in each of these works, so mature and impressive at the Cliburn, showed up only sporadically in the Aspen recital.
While most of the audience rose in enthusiasm at the end, including many pianists, a significant percentage hustled out as soon as the program ended, and their numbers increased between the first encore (Rachmaninoff) and the second (Liszt). I overheard conversations outside that grumbled, and others that swooned.
I don’t know what to make of all that. Was I on the wrong side of the audience? What was I missing? No doubt we will have more chances to experience Lim’s talent. He’s the buzz of the classical music world right now.
Earlier in relatively quiet week, a concert staging of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s last Broadway musical, “The Sound of Music,” a collaboration between the music festival and Theatre Aspen, scored a hit in a rare live concert performance of the popular score. Andy Einhorn conducted the performances Monday and Tuesday evenings in the Benedict Music Tent.
Like a very good “South Pacific” in 2019 and a disappointing revue of Rodgers’ music in 2021, “The Sound of Music” benefited from Broadway stars and one operatic soprano in the lead roles. The theater side filled secondary roles and members of the Opera Theater and VocalARTS program lent their heavenly voices to the recurring chorus of nuns.
Seen and heard Monday, Einhorn’s exuberant conducting produced joyful music from the full orchestra and the entire cast, emphasized by a trimmed-down script. There weren’t any weak links, not even among the seven youngsters playing the Von Trapp children or among the theatrical cast.
Director Marc Bruni, who directed “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” all over the world, showed a knack for using the concert setup wisely for simple scene changes and getting the cast to aim for a certain level of realism.
Christy Altomare, who has now headlined all three concert productions here, brought her silvery voice and bouncy personality to the role of Maria, the unconventional nun-to-be who ends up as the governess for the children and eventually becomes the wife of Captain Georg Von Trapp. Brandon Victor Dixon, who played Aaron Burr on Broadway in “Hamilton,” brought a sense of gravitas and a polished baritone to the role.
Altomare’s focus was on the character, with a nice sense of modesty that kept her familiar songs (“The Sound of Music,” “Do-Re-Mi,” “My Favorite Things”) from going over the top. They were almost conversational, which is exactly right for a score that can easily slip into the sugary.
Dixon’s sweet but unaffected “Edelweiss” was also a rewardingly beautiful moment. Tall and handsome, he made an attractive partner for Altomare.
Ashley Blanchet, the first Black woman to play Elsa — the lead in Broadway’s “Frozen” — sashayed admirably as another Elsa, Elsa Schraeder in this piece, conveying both seduction and privilege with her voice and body language. Brad Oscar caught the ambiguity of Max, the talent agent who recognizes the family’s musical possibilities and has mysterious dealings with Berlin. He excelled as another Max (Bialistok in “The Producers”), which he played more than 1,400 times on Broadway and on tour.
Best voice of all, though, belonged to Ana Maria Martinez. The veteran operatic lyrico-spinto brought the big tune — “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” — to life with disarming intensity. She also played scenes with Maria and the nuns with a sense of reserved warmth.
The seven Von Trapp children range from tots to the teenage Liesl (her “Sixteen Going On Seventeen” was as charming as could be). They all made the quick turnaround from brats to lovely kids nicely, each with an individual personality and a special talent to their voices that made clear their destiny as a world-renowned singing family.
All that was necessary to lend credence to the musical’s interpretation of the Von Trapp story, set in the years just before World War II. Their father absent as a submarine captain in the Austrian navy, the children warm to Maria, a novice sent from the abbey to be their governess, when she shares her love for music with them, and they turn out to be naturals. Their talent loosens up their strict father, who also finds a kindred soul in Maria — but not before he agrees to marry another wealthy woman, only to reject Elsa when she supports the Nazis.
He’s in a bind when the Germans, having taken over Austria, want him to command a submarine, but the situation leads to a clever getaway in the final scenes. The pacing, and singing, hit the right notes. As a political angle this works less well than the Emile Lebeque plot line in “South Pacific,” but the point of “The Sound of Music” is more personal. The characters learn to be true to themselves, and that was beautifully enunciated by the abbess in the final number, a stirring reprise of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain.”
NOT TO MISS IN THE COMING DAYS
In piano recitals Paul Lewis focuses on Schubert Tuesday and Max Lando draws on his jazz experience with his own arrangement of music by Duke Ellington Wednesday. The Percussion Ensemble, in previous years a fixture on a Monday night, plays its annual concert at 4:30 p.m. Thursday. Later, Lawrence Brownlee applies his burnished lyric tenor to works ranging from Scarlatti to Weil on Thursday.
Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 29 years. His reviews appear Tuesdays and Saturdays in The Aspen Times.
It’s almost time to ring in the new year and if your holiday schedule is shaping up to be as packed as mine, I wish you a well-deserved rest in 2024. In the meantime, it’s our chance to party, and party we shall.