Aspen Music Festival review: Lugansky’s Rachmaninoff tops a solid week |

Aspen Music Festival review: Lugansky’s Rachmaninoff tops a solid week

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times

Russian piano music is definitely in Nikolai Lugansky’s wheelhouse. His recital Tuesday evening in Harris Hall opened with six charming miniatures by Tchaikovsky and finished with 13 of Rachmaninoff’s technically terrifying preludes executed with consummate assurance and coloristic tone.

It was the highlight of a week in which the Aspen Music Festival offered a world premiere and another new work that engaged audiences, and the resident opera company did well by a certified crowd-pleasing classic.

From the first wistful notes of “Janvier” from Tchaikovsky’s “Les Saisons,” Lugansky spun a web of light and shade in six snapshots of Russian life. But it was with Rachmaninoff — all 10 of the Op. 23 Preludes and three of the Op. 32 Preludes — that the pianist reached the heights. Each one emerged with its own distinct personality and different flurries of pianistic flourishes.

As the technical challenges mounted, his command of the instrument and innate musicality brought out the essence no matter how much embroidery surrounded it. You could hear every note in the melodic line among the ripples, cascades and whitewater rapids. Powerful outbursts creating dark clouds of richness, never devolving into clanging. Quieter passages benefited from fine control of texture and tone, all of it rendered with shapely phrasing.

In between the Russian works, a set of four Chopin Mazurkas and the Polonaise-Fantasie in A-flat were controlled and finely wrought music, even if Chopin’s outbursts could have benefited from a wilder edge. The encore, one of Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words,” brought a sense of calm after the stormy Rachmaninoff Preludes.

At Wednesday evening’s Aspen Philharmonic concert in the Benedict Music Tent, a sparse but attentive audience heard Anna Clyne’s faux-ballet “The Seamstress” through the patter of raindrops and a few well-timed thunderclaps outside. Nature’s intrusions seemed to enhance the episodic nature of this one-movement violin concerto, played evocatively by Jennifer Koh, for whom it was written and premiered in 2015 by the Chicago Symphony.

English by birth, Irish by descent, Clyne builds the work around an original Celtic-steeped theme. Over its 22 minutes the beguiling pentatonic language undergoes swoops of glissandos by Koh and a range of embellishments in the orchestra, making for a dreamlike work that’s easy on the ears and prods the imagination. This is a composer I’d want to hear more of.

George Manahan led the all-student orchestra in an assured performance of this work and the bigger, broader musical canvases on the program — Richard Strauss’ ennobling “Death and Transfiguration” and Prokofiev’s rough-and-ready “Scythian Suite.” Big sounds, ably produced.

The American Brass Quintet almost always offers a world premiere at its annual recital, and Thursday night was no exception. A trumpet player and composer based in Philadelphia, Steven Franklin, all of 22 years old, wrote an unabashedly lush and romantic tone poem in three movements. The rich consonance, an unusual thing to find in a contemporary work, made things warm and cuddly. It may have been a bit too much of the same for all of its 17 minutes, but it was appealing to the ears.

Anders Hillborg’s Brass Quintet, which debuted here 10 years ago, still impresses with its playfulness and vigor. Sets of Elizabethan, mid-19th century Russian and, of course, Gabrieli of the early Baroque, arranged by members of the quintet, completed a concert of varying colors and crackling execution.

Earlier this week Aspen Opera Center did a lot of things right in its three-performance mid-July run of Verdi’s familiar classic “La Traviata,” which concluded Tuesday. The production outlined a portion of the Wheeler Opera House stage with a second story of green faux-iron balustrades, lending a mid-19th-century feel to a traditional staging nicely managed by Edward Berkeley, director of the opera program.

In Monday’s performance, the all-student orchestra under conductor George Manahan hit the right notes with professionalism. Intonation and balances were better than some orchestras I’ve heard in major opera houses. The chorus sang and moved about the stage with purpose. A range of distinctive voices in the second of two casts looked their parts and sang with conviction and musicality.

As Violetta, the “fallen woman” of the title, soprano Katherine Weber conveyed a level of dignity and vulnerability with her acting and a voice that hit high notes with a steely edge. She caressed the mid-range with welcome warmth even if in louder passages her Italian vowels went askew. Alexander McKissick could not quite match her in volume, but as her lover, Alfredo, he positioned his voice to express the music with the right ideas.

Vocally the most impressive performance came from baritone Sol Jin as Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont. With seamless vocal presence up and down his range, especially pingy at the high end, he rendered the music with accuracy and expressed the character’s initial haughtiness. In other roles, mezzo-soprano Gloria Palermo (as Flora, Violetta’s society friend) and soprano Mane Galoyan (as Annina, Violetta’s maid) were the standouts. If the results didn’t quite make the audience feel the emotional release in Act IV, it might be because they all seemed to be in their own worlds. As this story plays out we need to feel their impact on each other so the audience can weep along with them. Without these established connections, even Manahan’s efforts to draw all the juice from Verdi’s music left too many dry eyes in the house.

Not to miss in the coming weeks

The communicative and expressive violinist Daniel Hope plays Ravel, Elgar, Franck and Enescu tonight in a recital in Harris Hall, Anton Nel collaborating on piano. Sunday’s Festival Orchestra program in the tent features pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet in Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2, a tone poem in all but name. Andrey Boreyko conducts, including a delicious rarity: Zemlinsky’s symphonic fantasy “The Mermaid,” a big, lush, colorful extravaganza worth staying for after intermission. Monday’s attractive program of chamber music is in the tent so singer-composer Rufus Wainwright can perform in Harris Hall later that evening.

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