Aspen Music Festival review: Cellist Alisa Weilerstein pushes Bach to the limit
Special to the Aspen Times
Alisa Weilerstein apparently can make her cello do anything she wants. On Tuesday night in Harris Hall, she applied extraordinarily flawless technique for nearly 3 hours and 30 minutes to some of the most profound music ever written for the instrument: Johann Sebastian Bach’s suites for unaccompanied cello, all six of them in one go, without hardly blinking.
At one point, part way through No. 3 in C major, Bach wrote a double stop on a leading tone, suggesting a chord about to resolve satisfyingly. She trilled on both notes, deftly. Bach only meant for the player to trill the top note, but it was a breathtaking moment for anyone already caught up in this magnificent music.
With such command of articulation, dynamics and tone, Weilerstein aimed to inject excitement by taking liberties with the music, not all of them as sublime as that moment with the double trill. She pushed the limits, rushing the ends of phrases and racing through complex coloratura, only to turn the corner into graceful simplicity on the next phrase. She could apply so much rubato that some of the Allemandes and Courantes would surely have tripped anyone trying to dance to them.
Perhaps Weilerstein wanted us to see Bach through her own lens. With Bach’s more expansive writing in the later suites, she applied less of her own glosses. No. 5 in C minor was, mostly, a miracle of poise. The Prelude throbbed with anticipation, the Allemande stepped gracefully, the Courante sang with intensity, and the Sarabande wept with depth. If the Gigue finale took off at a breakneck pace and even sped up at the end, the result could be thrilling.
A key element of this music was missing, however. She executed with uncanny intonation, even when the lights went out briefly in the middle of No. 2, but it all sounded like one complex line instead of what Bach wanted: the illusion of two or three cellos playing several melodic lines at once.
There was no such willfulness from the American String Quartet on Wednesday night in Harris Hall. The quartet created the sound worlds of Dmitri Shostakovich, Claude Debussy and Johannes Brahms with uncanny precision and their signature balance of Peter Winograd’s vital violin line, Daniel Avshalamov’s expressive viola, Wolfram Koessel’s solid cello and Laurie Carney’s violin tying them together.
They opened with Shostakovich’s short, unsettling, haunting Quartet No. 7 in F-sharp minor, finding beauty in the music without losing its nervous edge. Next came a refined traversal of Debussy’s harmonically and formally subversive String Quartet in G minor, with its poetic themes and hazy harmonies coming in and out of focus.
Violist James Dunham and cellist Michael Mermagen, chamber music stalwarts of the festival’s faculty, joined the ensemble for Brahms’ expansive String Sextet in B-flat major. The composer’s moving parts shone through the dense writing, creating a sense of an ever-changing color wheel and reaching one ecstatic climax after another.
On Thursday night, the Aspen Opera Center stubbed its toe on Leonard Bernstein’s one-act opera “Trouble in Tahiti,” not because the singers or orchestra were deficient in any way but because of missteps in mounting the piece in Harris Hall. To avoid using the Wheeler Opera House to stage three operas in six weeks, it was decided last year to replace one with a “smaller” piece semi-staged in Harris.
Fine playing and singing lost out to a musically repellent piece last year. This year, imbalances with the orchestra muffled a terrific performance from the singers, and it was a mistake to project scenic images but no titles. Despite the use of amplification, a too-loud orchestra competed against the singers’ best efforts at the text. This was especially disappointing in Dinah’s “What a Movie!” in which mezzo-soprano Zaray Rodriguez seemed to be doing everything right, but when we only understand every third word it kills the comedy in a comic aria.
Titles would have made a huge difference in that, and in the duets with Michael Aiello’s Sam, whose virile baritone was impressive. As the jazzy “Greek chorus,” soprano Sophia Hunt, tenor Brian Jeffers and baritone Tim Murray caught the swing-era spirit, even if the same imbalances that plagued the soloists obscured some of their cogent insights.
Scott Terrell, an alum of the Aspen Music Festival conducting academy, got the 14-piece orchestra bouncing rhythmically and flowing impressively in the broader moments. But he must shoulder at least part of the blame for overwhelming the singers too often. David Coucheron, the concert master, contributed lovely solos.
To extend the 40-minute opera to a full program, the first half used the projection screen to show Charlie Chaplin’s charming 35-minute 1918 silent film “A Dog’s Life.” With no vocals to balance, Chaplin’s own emotionally gratifying score live came off nicely from the live orchestra. This being Aspen, where dogs abound, the audience responded more to the plights of the dog, Scraps, than to the brilliance of Chaplin’s comedy and pathos.
NOT TO MISS IN COMING DAYS
Violinist Gil Shaham makes his only Aspen Music Festival appearance tonight in Harris Hall, playing Bach, Debussy and Brahms with festival music director Robert Spano on piano. Midori makes her only performance appearance Sunday, playing Bernstein’s thoughtful and expressive Serenade on a program that concludes with Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, featuring mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton and tenor Richard Smagur. Patrick Summers conducts. And Monday it’s the always compelling percussion ensemble.
Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 23 years. His reviews appear in The Aspen Times Tuesdays and Saturdays.
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Theatre Aspen’s Solo Flights one-person play festival returns to the Hurst Theatre this summer Aug. 25-31with double the programming compared to its inaugural four-play festival in 2019.