Musicians tackle complete Bach suites, Beethoven sonatas in Aspen Music Festival series | AspenTimes.com

Musicians tackle complete Bach suites, Beethoven sonatas in Aspen Music Festival series

Three virtuosic musicians are taking deep dives into single composers this summer in Aspen, tackling complete bodies of work by Bach and Beethoven.

Violinist James Ehnes, cellist Alisa Weilerstein and pianist Jonathan Biss are all in the midst of immersive projects that will take the stage here in coming weeks.

These completist recitals have proved popular at the Aspen Music Festival and School, drawing not only aficionados but also classical neophytes looking for a crash course in great works.

James Ehnes is beginning, on July 21, a three-year series of recitals performing the full cycle of Beethoven's violin sonatas. Ehnes began releasing his recordings of the sonatas last year, and intends to record all 10.

As Ehnes begins his journey of recitals in Aspen, the acclaimed American pianist Jonathan Biss is in the final leg of his own musical marathon. Biss has been immersed in Beethoven's piano sonatas for seven years, attempting to perform and record the complete cycle.

This summer is the final in a three-summer residency at the Aspen Music Festival, during which he's performing all 32 of Beethoven's sonatas. He will play four on Aug. 16 and another four on Aug. 18 to complete his survey.

Though he's performed them out of order over his Aspen residency, he'll close, appropriately, with Sonato No. 32, the last that Beethoven wrote.

In addition to these popular recitals and recordings, Biss has written a book about the process, titled "Beethoven's Shadow," and teaches an online course through the Curtis Institute on Beethoven's sonatas. His journey with Beethoven is as much about advocacy and education as performance.

"His intensity and force of personality and his variety of expression is like nothing else I know," Biss told me last summer. "So I feel pulled to his music. I hear that this will sound melodramatic, but: I can't imagine my life without it."

The online course, titled "Exploring Beethoven's Sonatas," has been taken by more than 150,000 students in 185 countries — clear evidence that there is a thirst in the general public to learn more about Beethoven and about classical music.

After digging so deeply into these compositions, they still surprise Biss. No body of music, he argues, contains the multitudes of these sonatas.

"I want someone who comes to just one all-Beethoven recital to think, 'How did one imagination produce all of these different pieces?'"

Aspen Music Festival and School alumna Alisa Weilerstein will perform all six of Bach's cello suites in one three-hour recital Tuesday, July 31.

"It is a terrific outing for any cellist, but any cellist cannot do this," said Aspen Music Festival Vice President Asadour Santourian. "This is a demonstration that Alisa is sine qua non at this time."

Bach wrote the pieces in sequence in a burst of inspiration, and never returned to the form. Weilerstein has been doing the full cycle in concert since 2016.

"It's like transcendental meditation, almost, this incredible arc," she told The New York Times. "You start from No. 1, which is this flower bud of innocence, with deep purity, and then it just expands as you go through. … At the very end, I am emotionally exhausted, physically exhausted and my brain is turned to mush — and it's the most wonderful feeling, a cathartic feeling. I love it."

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Santourian describes the evening-long exploration of the Bach suites as a thrill-ride pairing one of the great cellists of our time with some of the most enthralling pieces ever written for the instrument.

"They're marvelous," he says of the cello suites. "The suites come out of dance movements and each one is a sound world and – in typical Bach fashion – they're all interrelated."

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IF YOU GO …

Who: Violinist James Ehnes

Where: Harris Concert Hall

When: Saturday, July 21, 8 p.m.

How much: $65

Tickets: Wheeler Opera House and Harris Hall box offices; aspenmusicfestival.com

More info: Ehnes will perform Beethoven’s complete violin sonatas over the next three years in Aspen.

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Who: Cellist Alisa Weilerstein

Where: Harris Concert Hall

When: Tuesday, July 31, 7:30 p.m.

How much: $65

Tickets: Wheeler Opera House and Harris Hall box offices; aspenmusicfestival.com

More info: Weilerstein will perform all six of Bach’s suites for unaccompanied cello.

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Who: Pianist Jonathan Biss

Where: Harris Concert Hall

When: Aug. 16 & 18

How much: $65

Tickets: Wheeler Opera House and Harris Hall box offices; aspenmusicfestival.com

More info: Biss is in the final year of a three-summer residency performing Beethoven’s complete piano sonatas at the Aspen Music Festival.