Aspen Music Festival review: Fleming’s voice soars in Puts’ Georgia O’Keeffe song cycle
The first Sunday concert of Aspen Music Festival’s eight-week season usually makes a statement. Last year Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, with all its triumphant glory, crowed “We’re back!” after a 2020 sidelined by the first months of the pandemic. This year the program topped off the afternoon program with composer Kevin Puts’ ravishing song cycle The Brightness of Light.
The performance was alternately entrancing and thought-provoking, saturated with our human ability to stand in awe of sheer beauty.
A regular performer at this festival throughout her career since her days as a student here, Renée Fleming made long, eloquent phrases soar effortlessly against a continuously fascinating kaleidoscope of orchestral color. These were hallmarks of Puts’ 45-minute take on letters exchanged between the painter Georgia O’Keeffe and photographer Alfred Stieglitz.
Puts conceived the piece, debuted in 2016 in New York, as a song cycle titled “Letters from Georgia” for Fleming and the Eastman Philharmonia. At Fleming’s suggestion he expanded it into a version for orchestra that premiered in 2019 at Tanglewood with the Boston Symphony with baritone Rod Gilfrey voicing some of Stieglitz’s responses to add depth in several duets and two solo songs.
Gilfrey delivered, here with dignity and bronze vocal hues, singing Stieglitz’s words with appropriate reserve, and made them heard against some dense orchestration.
With the composer in town for this presentation (and presumably helping in preparation), festival music director Robert Spano drew sensitive playing from the orchestra, especially in Fleming’s most musically expressive moments, and juiced up some broad climaxes in the two orchestra-only interludes.
The title, and the first musical phrases, were inspired by this opening line from O’Keeffe’s autobiography: “My first memory is of the brightness of light — light all around.” Anyone who has stood in awe of O’Keeffe’s paintings can relate, as they home in on the land and sky of her adopted home, Taos, New Mexico. It was her decision to stay in Taos, even after she and Stieglitz had married and he stayed in New York, that produced many of the letters in the quoted in the song cycle.
Stieglitz, 23 years older than her, was already a celebrated art photographer when he recognized her talent in a series of sketches, and he championed her work in New York art circles. The songs trace how their relationship developed from mentorship to a love affair and eventually marriage after Stieglitz divorced his first wife.
Puts’ music reflects the undercurrents of this complex story in the tentative duet “First Correspondence,” and erotic elements in “Ache.” Among songs for Fleming, “Taos” explores the emotional conflict between her love for her new home in the Southwest and the distance developing between them. Stieglitz’s fascination with her comes through in his solo song, “A Soul Like Yours,” a penetrating statement of his awe in her artistic achievements.
The lighter “Violin” portrays Georgia’s attempts to learn violin with (intentionally) out-of-tune playing by concertmaster Robert Chen accompanying her narrative.
The crowning moments of the 45-minute piece are the luminous final two songs, based on letters O’Keeffe wrote after Stieglitz’s death in 1946. “Friends” reminisces on what he meant to her even as they were separated by thousands of miles, and the final song, “Sunset,” a paean to the majesty and beauty of her adopted Taos that ends the cycle with breathtaking poignancy. It pulses with orchestral colors — in one gorgeous moment a harp and vibraphone accompany Fleming’s floating soprano — and a soft finish captures in music the unique colors and scope of O’Keeffe’s New Mexico paintings.
The less said the better about the opening work on the program, selections from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet. It contains some of the composer’s most evocative music, but this ham-handed performance of 15 excerpts missed the mark. The Romantic melodic lines lacked nuance, and the big rhythms of Dance of the Knights simply tromped.
NOT TO MISS IN THE COMING DAYS
The Pacifica Quartet sandwiches Jennifer Higdon’s Voices for String Quartet, which contrasts energy with serenity, between works by Haydn and Dvorak in their recital Thursday in Harris Hall. Nicolas McGegan leads a concert in the tent Friday with the Aspen Chamber Symphony that includes Mendelssohn’s music from Midsummer Night’s Dream and the violin concerto played by Randall Goosby.
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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