Aspen Music Festival review: Hadelich, Meyer top a virtuoso-filled music festival weekend
Special to The Aspen Times
It takes a lot to overshadow a Mahler symphony, especially when it makes as splendid a splash as the Aspen Festival Orchestra achieved with the Symphony No. 1, with all its colorful scene painting and thrilling climaxes, Sunday afternoon in the Benedict Music Tent.
Before that, though, Augustin Hadelich played the Sibelius Violin Concerto so extraordinary well that the rainstorm gods, who seemed intent on drowning out any music Sunday, simply gave up after a few minutes, and remained at bay for the duration of the 30-minute concerto.
The heavens opened with a reprise of the thunderous cloudburst that hailed heavily on Aspen Saturday afternoon. The rain welled up just before the 4 p.m. start. After a few minutes it was decided to go ahead with the 10-minute first piece, Onward, written by Rian Raphael Nabors in 2019. The downpour made it mostly inaudible. And then, as the orchestra made its adjustments for playing the concerto, it continued. And continued.
Finally, at 4:30, during a semi-lull, Hadelich strode on and conductor Robert Spano gave the downbeat. The rain got louder, and then, it stopped. Four minutes had elapsed.
Even if the opening pages went mostly unheard, the rest was astounding. Hadelich, in total command, created shapely countermelodies to the orchestra’s statements. He spun out phrases, no matter how deep or high they were on the violin, he made them take flight. Each gesture led inexorably to the next, as if growing organically from moment to moment.
There are so many points where a violinist can find just the right way in, or take a breath to add just enough emphasis to convey what the music means, and Hadelich made the most of all of them. Though Spano dialed up tempos of challenging speed, nuances came through clearly. Hadelich just ran with it.
Even though the concert was running late the audience demanded, and got, an encore — Hadelich’s own arrangement of Carlos Gardel’s great tango, “Por Una Cabeza.” No matter how complex his elaborations, the music swayed provocatively.
Though the rain pattered softly through the Mahler symphony, there’s so much going on in the score, it never really mattered. If the horn section has had better outings, it still whipped up enough excitement for a big finish. As the scenes unfolded, trumpets and trombones interjecting crisp fanfares, each solo turn in the orchestra emerged with distinction, especially by the woodwinds and timpanist Edward Stephan.
Speaking of virtuosity, that essential element of classical music was on display Saturday night in the tent in a delicious reunion of the three musicians responsible for the genre-bending 1997 recording “Uncommon Ritual.” At the center of it all was Edgar Meyer, who has been on the artist-faculty at the festival since the 1990s. He can make his string bass sound like a violin and compose music that absorbs traditions from bluegrass, jazz, classical and South Asian music with ease. Flanking him on one side was Béla Fleck, who can play Bach as fluently as the bluegrass of Earl Scruggs on banjo. On the other was Mike Marshall, who can make his tiny mandolin stand in for an entire orchestra.
Meyer got longtime friends Fleck and Marshall to join him in writing new music for an album to build on the success of “Appalachia Waltz,” which had featured Meyer with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and fiddler Mark O’Connor. It was a landmark, proving that a mix of American genre music can be taken seriously.
Saturday’s reunion brought back 16 of the 17 tracks on “Uncommon Ritual.” The title piece displayed Meyer’s talents as a composer in its range of tempos, styles and density, plus the strengths of each musician’s style. They have the uncanny ability to read each other’s minds like jazz musicians while playing music a listener just can’t pigeonhole into a single genre. Through the evening, bumping rhythms and elbow-in-the-ribs humor framed music that often emphasized jaw-dropping chops.
There was the speed and deftness of “Chromium Picolinate,” in which Fleck flexes his bluegrass muscles at a breakneck tempo, and the down-home rusticity of “Chance Meeting,” which rolls along so amiably at seven beats to the measure that it feels normal. “In the Garden” created a moment of serenity, and “Sliding Down” found all three switching onto the others’ instruments (plus Meyer on silky-smooth piano) within the same piece.
For astonishing articulation, though, nothing could top Meyer’s excursion into Pablo Sarasate’s “Zigeunerweisen” in a duo with Marshall’s mandolin. If anything, Meyer played it even better here than on the recording.
On Friday evening, the vagaries of mountain weather also drowned out most of Stephen Waarts’ long first-movement cadenza, but after a break of several minutes to let a heavy rain shower pass, the Beethoven Violin Concerto made its points with freshness and sensitivity the rest of the way. Soloist and conductor Tomáš Netopil were in sync. The Larghetto was especially appealing, breathing with a naturalness that made the musical lines flow smoothly, and the lively finale stepped lightly.
For an encore, Waarts took advantage of Mother Nature’s renewed silence to fashion a haunting account of the first movement of Ysaÿe’s Sonata No.5, appropriately titled “l’aurore” (dawn, even though it was an evening reemergence of the sun).
Netopil kept the brisk pace for Beethoven’s Symphony No.4 as the orchestra, spearheaded by the agile playing of concertmaster David Halen, kept up nicely with the conductor’s crisp approach. Except for minor stumbles at the beginning of the Scherzo, the piece sparkled.
The same could not be said of the opener, “Fiesta!” by the Peruvian-born composer Jimmy López. Neither conductor nor members of the orchestra could summon the required Latino rhythms to bring the music to life, not even the drummers.
Saturday afternoon’s artist-faculty chamber music program was dedicated to Joseph Kalichstein, who died in March. The pianist was a fixture at this festival for decades. “Yossi,” as his friends knew him, was the pianist in the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinbson Trio, best known for playing the Brahms B-major Trio. Pianist Anton Nel, violinist Alexander Kerr and cellist Brinton Smith, longtime friends and colleagues of Yossi’s, delivered the goods in a sincere and focused performance of the trio. He would have loved it.
The Arensky String Quartet No.2. written as a tribute to Tchaikovsky after his death, seemed an appropriate choice to follow, but it’s such a somber piece with its iterations of Russian Orthodox liturgy and variations on a solemn Tchaikovsky song. Despite sensitive readings, Espen Lilleslåtten, violist Victoria Chiang and cellists Michael Mermagen and Shengyu Meng didn’t cheer up until the finale, which quotes the folk melody that appears as the Russian theme in Beethoven’s String Quartet (Op.59, No.2) and in the Coronation Scene of Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov, and ends on a lively fugue based on the tune. For me, it took too long to get there.
NOT TO MISS IN THE COMING DAYS
Next weekend looks especially tasty, with guitarist Sharon Isbin joined by three sarod players in music from their Strings for Peace album Saturday night and the return of conductor Vasiliy Petrenko in Sunday’s Festival Orchestra program that includes Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, always a crowd-pleaser.
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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