Aspen Music Festival review: Hadelich sublime in Brahms concerto |

Aspen Music Festival review: Hadelich sublime in Brahms concerto

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times

In a season of generally high-quality music making, we haven’t heard anything quite as fine as Augustin Hadelich’s breathtaking performance of Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D major Sunday afternoon.

The weather cooperated with stillness and a rapt audience at the Benedict Music Tent hung on every note as the 33-year-old violinist spun one magical phrase after another on his 1723 Stradivarius. He played lyrical sections with sigh-inducing delicacy. He cast complex, rapid-fire passages with precision and flair. But most importantly, he had a clear idea of how he wanted things to develop in this monumental 45-minute musical journey, ratcheting up the tension and letting it ebb gently, tracing an arc that somehow felt both inevitable and fresh.

Conductor Joshua Weilerstein proved himself an able collaborator, marshaling the Aspen Festival Orchestra into the same corral with the soloist. Weilerstein constantly made eye contact with the violinist, something concerto conductors have not done this year. In the orchestra-only sections, the ensemble rose to make its own Brahmsian statements. Tone had clarity. Rhythm revealed a gentle pulse. Alex Klein’s plangent oboe solo in the slow movement was a highlight.

But the day — and perhaps the season — belonged to Hadelich, who demonstrated once again how an artist of his stature can bring familiar music to life as if we are hearing it for the first time. His encore did likewise. Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 (the one Rachmaninoff co-opted for his piano Rhapsody) was a marvel of pinpoint articulation, dynamic control and the humility to let the music be the showoff.

The concert opened with a full-throated account of the Egmont Overture, like Beethoven on steroids, which in retrospect made an appropriate appetizer for the local debut of Christopher Rouse’s rowdy and muscular Symphony No. 5, an Aspen Music Festival co-commission. (The Dallas Symphony played it first in February under Jaap van Zweden.)

Echoes of Beethoven’s famous 5th pepper the score. The rhythmic “fate” motive in breathless percussion launches the ship, and the overall shape of the piece more or less traces similar paths, but the content is all Rouse. He loves to crash and bang, and he’s not above rude blasts from the low brass, but he also can create moments that suspend time in tonal beauty. Over its four movements played without pause it organizes its rambunctiousness within a logical frame.

The result is a kaleidoscope of colors and a feast of rhythms that grabs an audience by the lapels and propels them into a triumphant finish. This piece deserves to be heard often.

The standout in Friday’s Aspen Chamber Symphony program, Joyce Yang, brought her consummate musicality and fine technique to some showoff Liszt, namely Ferruccio Busoni’s 1894 arrangement of the “Rhapsodie espagnole.” Busoni, a pianist himself, made something of a side hustle out of orchestrating finger-busting piano works by Liszt, and also reducing orchestral pieces by Liszt for piano.

Busoni’s colorful orchestration, nicely shaped by conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya, added breadth to the pianistic flourishes and created a concerto-like atmosphere. Yang was indomitable, spraying the notes about with élan, but also bringing dignity to the proceedings. Her encore quieted things with Grieg’s gentle Nocturne, four minutes of haunting delicacy.

A late sub for an indisposed Johannes Debus (the originally announced maestro), Harth-Bedoya not only kept pace in this music, he wove a nice carpet of strings for a septet of impressive wind players in Swiss composer Frank Martin’s genial Concerto for Seven Wind Instruments and Timpani. It opened the concert with excellent individual contributions from the soloists — Zirbel, Kevin Cobb (trumpet), Addison Maye-Saxon (trombone), Nadine Asine (flute), Elaine Douvas (oboe), Michael Rusinek (clarinet), Nancy Goeres (bassoon) and Jonathan Haas (timpani), an Aspen A-list group.

Harth-Bedoya also captured the broad stokes in Brahms’ majestic Symphony No. 3. John Zirbel’s sweet-tempered horn solo in a finely shaped third movement was a highlight.

Saturday night in Harris Hall, guitarist Sharon Isbin brought her warmth and flair to Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez.” She invested a welcome freshness in this most familiar work for guitar and orchestra, coloring the central Adagio with utmost refinement and adding gentle sparks to the outer movements. The student orchestra, conducted by Scott Tyrrell, joined in the spirit.

The encore, Granados’ Spanish Dance No. 5, all but stole the show. The composer wrote it as a solo piano work emulating Spanish guitar, but to hear it played by a guitar master put it in a completely different light. Isbin’s rhythmic freedom and improvisatory elegance made it even more totally Spanish.

Earlier Saturday, the Aspen Opera Center ventured way out on a limb to present a concert version of “Seven Angels,” a bleak opera very loosely inspired by Milton’s “Paradise Lost.”

Seven singers and the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble, led by conductor Yves Abel, threw themselves into British composer Luke Bedford’s craggy music. Valiant work by soprano Julia Walcott as Angel 1/Waitress and tenor Brian Michael Moore as Angel 4/Prince carried much of the vocal load. All the singers were impressive.

Glyn Maxwell’s obtuse and pretentious libretto, combined with Bedford’s often hammering, hectoring musical style, made this a rough one on the ears. Bedford’s first and final scenes carried a magical, if frightening, sense of atmosphere. But then skewed vocal lines and an incessantly pounding score made an assault of the rest, a heavy-handed story of a once-robust garden turned to dust by climate change. Grim stuff.


Hadelich returns with friends to offer a chamber music recital of Haydn, Kodâly, Takemitsu and Brahms on Wednesday night in Harris Hall. The American String Quartet’s annual recital Thursday night sandwiches Haydn and Beethoven around Robert Sirota’s “American Pilgrimage,” commissioned by the quartet. Friday evening’s all-Beethoven Chamber Orchestra program in the tent features the Piano Concerto No. 4 and the Pastoral Symphony under conductor Hans Graf.

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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