Aspen Music Festival review: Daniil Trifonov’s piano concerto overwhelms |

Aspen Music Festival review: Daniil Trifonov’s piano concerto overwhelms

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times

Aiming to honor the great Russian pianist-composers he hopes to emulate, Daniil Trifonov channeled Rachmaninoff, Scriabin and Prokofiev in the Aspen Music Festival debut of his own piano concerto Sunday in the Benedict Music Tent. In the great tradition of show-off concertos, it put the spotlight squarely on the pianist.

Unfortunately, composer Trifonov almost drowned out pianist Trifonov. There were times when even his best efforts at the keyboard could not be heard over the Aspen Festival Orchestra in full cry, Ludovic Morlot conducting.

Debuted in 2014, when Trifonov was 23 years old, the piece is chock full of “look what I can do” ideas. Virtuosity abounds, as do impressive moments of compositional flourish. If there was a through-line in the music, an arc that tells a musical or programmatic story, the rush of pianistic explosions and dense orchestration buried it.

The only respite in the 32-minute piece was a short Andante, an intermezzo marked by lovely pianissimo playing by clarinetist Joaquin Valdepeñas and Scriabin-like filigrees on the piano. That led quickly to the Allegro vivace finale, inspired by Prokofiev. The final pages of the score caromed between pounding rhythms and thick harmonies. A moment of sweetness from a solo violin only seemed to trigger a manic cadenza of wicked runs, broad glissandos and fist-busting chords from the soloist. It might have made a thrilling climax, except what preceded it was already so dense that it simply upped the ante on music we had been hearing for past half hour.

The opening piece, Debussy’s “La damoiselle élue,” and concluding piece, Ravel’s justifiably popular setting of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” demonstrated how true masters of orchestration can do it. Debussy set a French translation of a Gabriel Rossetti poem about a young woman waiting in heaven for her lover to join her with his characteristic soft colors and plush textures. Singers from the Aspen Opera Center provided on-point vocals.

After intermission, Ravel’s orchestration used instrumental colors deftly to magnify music written for piano. The results breathed, every exhale leading to another peak. Ravel thus earns the big climax, brass in full bloom, percussion whaling away. The broad finale, “The Great Gate of Kiev,” sent everyone home smiling.

Soloists and sections within the orchestra got moments in the spotlight, most notably principal trumpet James Wilt’s declamation of the “promenade” theme and his solo turn in “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle,” and the flutes led by Nadine Asin in “The ballet of the chicks in their shells.” The brass as a whole distinguished itself with rich ensemble playing.

The Aspen Chamber Orchestra kicked off the weekend Friday evening in the tent with a thoughtful and colorful performance of Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2 “The Age of Anxiety.” Pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, his nose buried in the score, his body language conveying that he needed to tread carefully, gave the exposed piano part its due while conductor Robert Spano coaxed the orchestra into expressive playing.

There were plenty of moments of sheer beauty in Bernstein’s typically eclectic music, especially a series of intertwining duets, beginning with haunting clarinets. The tour through different styles of music in the 14 variations in the piece’s first half highlighted each one’s unique personality, and the contrast between the banal and the spiritual in the second half came through clearly, reaching a majestic climax at the end.

Treading carefully was a hallmark of the second half, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 “Eroica.” Spano favored deliberate tempos, which allowed Beethoven’s revolutionary musical innovations to come through clearly. But with dynamics played close to the vest and a pace that approached “trudge,” whole passages went by without much nuance. Missing was the urgency that makes for a great performance.

Pianist Orli Shaham’s program Saturday night in Harris Hall delved into the work of Steve Reich. Pieces from early and late in his career bookended music by other composers who influenced him. In “Piano Phase” for two pianos, from 1967, the first steps into minimalism. A curlicue 12-note pattern repeats endlessly, one pianist slipping out of sync by one beat until the patterns sync up again, creating a hypnotic kind of counterpoint.

Pianist Micah McLaurin and star percussion students Bryce Leafman and Hannah Weaver joined Shaham in capping off the program with “Quartet” for two pianos and two vibraphones. Dating from 2013, the tautly organized, 16-minute orgy of rhythms and pleasing sonic overtones proved gripping from start to finish. It’s stunning stuff.

In between, music by Stravinsky, Bach (by way of Liszt), Ravel and Paul Schoenfield got fine performances, even if the pieces did not always come through as intended. Schoenfield’s 1990 attempt to upgrade Jewish vernacular music into something for the concert hall never quite cohered, despite the best efforts of Shaham, clarinetist Michael Rusinek and violinist Bing Wang. Other than “Quartet,” the highlight of the evening was Ravel’s “Deux mélodies hébraïques.” Sung with both tenderness and arresting fervor by mezzo-soprano Krystin Skidmore, Shaham accompanying, it better hinted at Reich’s embrace of Jewish themes later in his career.

Violinist Robert Chen led an ensemble that grappled gamely with Stravinsky’s spiky Septet, meant to reflect the ostinatos and pungent harmonies in Reich’s music. Playing solo, Shaham made satisfying organ-like resonances out of Liszt’s transcription of a Bach Prelude and Fugue.

Earlier Saturday, in the afternoon chamber music program, tenor Spencer Lang lent his sleek tenor to John Corigliano’s heart-tugging setting of Dylan Thomas’ “Poem in October,” accompanied by an augmented Aspen Contemporary Ensemble under conductor Donald Crockett.


Contemporary music fills Harris Hall this week. Violinist Daniel Hope plays Festival President and CEO Alan Fletcher’s violin concerto tonight in a program of music for small chamber orchestras. Violinist Augustin Hadelich goes full-modern Wednesday night, and the American Brass Quintet offers two brand-new works Thursday night (bracketed by their usual nods to the Renaissance).

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 23 years. His reviews appear Tuesdays and Sundays in The Aspen Times.