Aspen Music Festival review: Gypsy fun after Brahms enlivens the weekend

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times

The cellist David Finckel and his pianist wife Wu Han always deliver more than expected. For their recital Saturday evening in Harris Hall they chose two extraordinary partners in crime, the violinist Arnaud Sussmann and the violist Paul Neubauer, in early Beethoven and Brahms.

Wu Han’s introductory remarks explained that Beethoven made his first splash in Vienna with his Opus 1 piano trios (piano, violin and cello) followed three years later with his Opus 9 string trios (violin, viola and cello). When Brahms hit Vienna in 1861, he opted for a piano quartet, topping it off with an extroverted rondo finale of gypsy inspiration, something he knew the Viennese would relish.

That last is what set off two memorable encore turns by Neubauer. Entering from the back of Harris Hall, he played his way down the aisle, weaving sinuous gypsy phrases, serenading Joan Harris (after whom the hall is named), all the while accompanied by the others onstage. The audience lapped it up, and well they should have. It was inspired jollity with soulful music-making.

The program opened with Beethoven’s string trio Op. 9 No. 1, a cheerful romp that includes some finger-busting piano work, which Wu Han dispatched with élan, attention to dynamics and unity of pace and tempo. Sussman and violist Neubauer fit smoothly with Finckel. Sussman took the lead with assurance and presence, as he did throughout the proceedings, and Neubauer was with them, nuance for nuance.

Wu Han delivered the tricky passages with flair and precision in the Piano Trio Op. 1 No. 2 that followed. Finckel was the linchpin, his cello line passing the melodic material back and forth, his face reflecting how each passage bounced among the musicians. If the finale turned into a headlong race to the finish line, they all arrived together, breathlessly. All three pieces ended with the tempo marking of presto, the fastest.

The Brahms quartet took off with stolid unity, veered into a sweet interlude and, as the material developed, reflected a welcome sense of discovery. The soft, muted strings brought a glow to the gently flowing Intermezzo before dissolving into an almost devotional-sounding Andante. Then came the finale, and an encore that ended an exciting performance on high notes when Neubauer turned the 500-seat hall into his personal gypsy cabaret—on viola.

Other programs over the weekend acknowledged the festival’s theme for this season. “Paris: City of Light” focuses on works by Parisian composers and others inspired by the French capital. Friday’s Chamber Symphony program in the Benedict Music Tent managed to fuse the Paris theme with pieces written by and inspired by Mozart. Conductor Nicholas McGegan opened with a sprightly romp through Mozart’s “Paris” symphony. Paris-born Jacques Ibert’s “Hommage à Mozart” opened the second half with a touch of Impressionist flair.

The evening concluded with a lively traversal of Georges Bizet’s early Symphony in C, written with obvious nods to Mozart (and Haydn, Schubert and Mendelssohn, too) when the composer was a student at the Paris Conservatory. McGegan’s irresistible energy and rhythmic bounce infused the music.

Rain, which intrudes on tent concerts sporadically throughout the season, started pounding just as violin soloist Ray Chen reached the final pages of Mozart’s elegant Concerto No. 5 in A major. As the audience rose to a standing ovation, the tent felt like inside of bass drum battered by a hundred percussionists. The thrum persisted through intermission. With a shrug, Chen left the stage without an encore, but returned to play it (amplified) as the rain started to let up during the second half. Paganani’s Caprice No. 21 showed off his chops impressively.

Ravel’s famous orchestral tone poem “La Valse” represented the season’s theme in Sunday’s Aspen Festival Orchestra program. Conductor David Robertson emphasized its abrasive edges from the start, rather than letting things well up smoothly before veering off into violence. The result was intense and gripping.

Perhaps he was trying to bookend the program with something as lapel-grabbing as the opener, Andrew Norman’s “Play: Level 1,” which opens with a sonic assault and only lets up a bit by the finish. Or maybe balance the sweetness and charm of the Duo-Concertino by Richard Strauss that opened the second half. Clarinetist Joaquin Valdepeñas and bassoonist Per Hannevold, principals in the orchestra for years, made an utterly captivating duo.

But the apex of the afternoon was Stefan Jackiw’s superbly articulated, fearlessly Romantic and sleek work on Korngold’s heart-on-sleeve Violin Concerto. Robertson coaxed vital backing from the orchestra, whether articulating the tunes from Korngold’s films or supporting the violinist gracefully as he tackled the challenging gestures in the score. Jackiw outdid himself with a stately, regal and deft encore, the Largo from Bach’s Unaccompanied Sonata No. 3.

The highlights of Saturday afternoon’s chamber music olio were a colorful and lyrical Impressionist style “Prélude, récitatif et variations” by Duruflé, in which flutist Nadine Asin and violist CarlaMaria Rodrigues wove their melodic lines around soft harmonies applied by pianist Andrew Harley, and a muscular, energetic performance of Stravinsky’s Sonata for Two Pianos played by Conrad Tao and Elliot Wuu, currently a student at the festival.

The program opened with clarinetist Juan Gabriel Olivares applying supple tone and lovely clarity to composer Helene Grime’s somewhat scattered concerto for clarinet and concluded with a surprisingly rough-edged Fauré Piano Quartet No. 2 in G minor from a usually stalwart group — Sylvia Rosenberg, James Dunham, Michael Mermagen and Anton Nel.


In Harris Hall today, pianist Daniil Trifonov leads up to Chopin’s Sonata No. 2 with homages to the Polish composer by six others, from Schumann to Barber. On Wednesday the Emerson String Quartet immerses itself in late Beethoven. On Thursday music fans must decide between Nicholas McGegan’s Baroque evening at Harris or opening night of Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” at the Wheeler Opera House. Either one should be juicy.

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


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