Aspen Music Fest review: Fleming, Bronfman light up virtual tribute to Spano |

Aspen Music Fest review: Fleming, Bronfman light up virtual tribute to Spano

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times
Renée Fleming performing from home in VIrginia on Sunday's Aspen Music Festival and School streaming event.

Renée Fleming, singing from her living room on the East Coast, delivered the afternoon’s pinnacle performance Sunday afternoon at the very end of the Aspen Music Festival’s ambitious two-hour virtual celebration of Robert Spano’s 10th year as music director.

Fleming, the newly minted co-director of the festival and school’s Opera Theater, displayed her lush vocalism and framed her singing with pure and easily understood intentions. She delivered a ravishing reading of “Liebst du um Schönheit,” a gorgeously flowing paean to love of beauty from Mahler’s Rückert lieder, with Robert Ainsley providing sensitive support on piano. Fleming topped off the afternoon’s proceedings with a heartfelt and musically fluent “How Can I Keep From Singing,” a 19th-century hymn made popular by the likes of Pete Seeger in the 1950s and Enya in the 1990s.

The other undeniable star was pianist Yefim Bronfman, an Aspen regular. With his usual busy touring schedule canceled, he’s spending the entire summer in Aspen, and he commanded the piano in Harris Hall in the event’s first few musical performances.

Hearing Bronfman as accompanist was a rare treat as he lent deft playing to three Richard Strauss songs with mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, and a languid piece by festival CEO Alan Fletcher with Aspen faculty artists Michael Rusinek (clarinet) and Nancy Goeres (bassoon). DeYoung’s approach was more stentorian Wagner than sleek Strauss, but the last of the three songs, “Befreit,” found a lyric sound to fit the music and make the song come to life. Rusinek and Goeres impressively articulated Fletcher’s evocative scene-setting clarinet flourishes and bassoon melodics.

On his own for two short Chopin pieces, Bronfman offered a dry-eyed Nocturne in D-flat major Op. 27 No. 2 and followed that with a magical combination of precise articulation and rhythmic fluidity in the fairy-like Étude in F major Op. 10, No. 8.

Faces familiar to regular festival attendees provided their own performances. If they felt subdued compared with Fleming’s and Bronfman’s, they still had their merits.

Playing from the resonant, slightly echo-y acoustics of a performance space at his Center for Strings in Macon, Georgia, Robert McDuffie (who has been playing nearly every summer at Aspen for 40 years) applied the signature singing qualities of his violin playing to the opening movement of Brahms’ Violin Sonata No. 1 in G major. Pianist Elizabeth Pridgeon accompanied, and provided the bounce for a favorite encore of his, Kreisler’s Rosmarin.

Mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor followed from Harris Hall with two songs in Spanish. The first, “Amor mio si muero y tù no mueres” from Peter Lieberson’s “Neruda Songs,” flowed nicely but seemed short on Spanish intensity. Better was an aria from “Ainadamar,” Oswaldo Golijov’s 2003 opera about Garcia Lorca. A more passionate, if wistful, “Desde mi ventana” reflected that O’Connor originated the role. Brian Locke accompanied.

In between these musical performances, a parade of present and past festival officials and prime donors such as Kay Buchsbaum offered personal praises of Spano, who responded in the end with gracious thank-yous and expressed disappointment that he could not share the summer making music with students and professional musicians as usual. Fletcher and artistic adviser Asadour Santourian shared a split-screen conversation with Spano about his enthusiasm for teaching. The conductor said he got bitten by the teaching bug when he needed to make money to pay for his own music lessons.

When he was appointed music director in 2011, Spano took the reins of the festival and school’s conducting academy, originated by his predecessor, David Zinman. In what was billed as a surprise for Spano, all 10 winners of the academy’s conducting prize got together virtually, each in their own homes or gardens, for a Zoom performance of contemporary German composer Rüdiger Ruppert’s “If You’ve Lost Your Drums…” — a clapping and slapping piece that added genuine laughs of delight to the afternoon.

From a technical perspective the performances came off flawlessly, with the exception of those untamed echoes in Macon. There was an unexplained false start at the very beginning, and minor video-audio sync issues in some of the pre-recorded commentary between the music, including Fletchers Introduction.

The digital event kicked off a lineup of streamed performances spread over the full eight weeks of the festival’s usual summer schedule. Unlike its normal calendar, jam-packed as it usually is with orchestral, chamber and vocal concerts, master classes, lectures and panel discussions, these 2020 events will be streaming only a few times per week. The festival’s Facebook page and website will be offering these simultaneously.


Sundays at 3 p.m. are reserved for each week’s major concert, but instead of the Aspen Festival Orchestra in the 2,000-seat Benedict Music Tent it will be chamber music concerts. Many are streaming from the 550-seat Harris Hall next door. Violinist James Ehnes plays three of Beethoven’s six sonatas for violin in the featured concert this coming Sunday. Trumpets are on the menu for two mid-week treats — a showcase Wednesday at 5 p.m. featuring trumpet faculty member Stuart Stephenson and two students, and a conversation on auditions and performance with them and Spano on Thursday at 5 p.m.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival since the early 1990s. His reviews of 2020’s virtual season appear Tuesdays in The Aspen Times.


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