Review: A quirky feast of American delights at Aspen Music Fest
Special to The Aspen Times
American music enlivened several programs this past week, some in unexpected ways.
The final performance Monday of the Aspen Opera Center’s “A Little Night Music” presented one of Stephen Sondheim’s most treasured and accessible scores. Later in the week, student singers explored American song from Stephen Foster to Broadway in a one-hour “cabaret.” And the American Brass Quintet finished its all-American Aspen recital with the music of a North Carolina Civil War band.
Aspen Opera Center got to the heart of “A Little Night Music” at the Wheeler Opera House. Veteran Broadway and Sondheim conductor Andy Einhorn carefully navigated the composer’s 1973 score, setting Ingmar Bergman’s classic film comedy, “Smiles of a Summer Night” to music wittily written as waltzes and other three-beat rhythms. After a few missteps, Edward Berkeley’s minimal staging came together with the first-act ensemble finale “Weekend in the Country” and built sure-footedly to a warm and touching ending.
The singers in the central roles, both in their 30s, used their maturity to bring depth to their characters. Kelly Birch as Desiree Armfeldt carried herself with the glamor of a stage star and delivered a perfectly pitched “Send In The Clowns,” the score’s most popular song. Michael Aiello, who was a virile Sam in last year’s “Trouble in Tahiti” cannily underplayed Frederik Egerman, Desiree’s on-and-off lover, to make their relationship feel real.
That, and a nicely placed baritone voice, gave Aiello the edge over baritone Geoffrey Hahn, who overplayed Carl-Magnus, the pretentious army office and Desiree’s current paramour. But the two baritones’ Act Two duet, “It Would Have Been Wonderful” contrasted styles nicely.
Also on the plus side, the quintet of “Greek chorus” singers, especially soprano Charlotte Bagwell and tenor Jehú Otero, roamed the stage, set up and transitioned between scenes with flair. Mezzo-soprano Katherine Menke delivered all of the maid Petra’s uninhibited scenes; her song, “The Miller’s Son,” got pretty close to controlled abandon. And 17-year-old soprano Ashley Grace Chen combined charm and spot-on singing as Frederika, Desiree’s inquisitive (and smart) daughter.
Some of the cast missed the wry charm of their characters, however. Soprano Dorothy Gal’s Anne Egerman, Frederik’s flibbertigibbet young new wife, and tenor Spencer Boyd’s Henrik Egerman, Frederik’s seminary son, created caricatures. As well as she sang, mezzo-soprano Emily Treigle never got the world-weary wisdom of Madame Armfeldt in her potentially show-stopping “Liaisons,” but Erin Theodorakis not only nailed the sneaky wit in Charlotte, Carl-Magnus’ resourceful wife, but found shadings of meaning in “Every Day a Little Death,” her duets with Anne in Act One and with Desiree in Act Two.
If Act One felt a little underwhelming, maybe it was the projected titles that telegraphed the jokes when Sondheim’s lyrics aimed for a laugh with the last words of a line. Also, performing without props — probably necessary given the space limits of the Wheeler — left some of the elements of farce in the dust. But Act One, which plays out the characters’ myriad romantic choices, got what it was aiming for — a satisfying finish.
Billed as a “cabaret evening,” the Opera Center’s “Red, Hot and Blue” Thursday in Harris Hall fielded a quirky mix of familiar and the obscure songs. The singers, all terrific voices, possessed varying degrees of chops to sing them in the vernacular. Only mezzo-soprano Menke (“Night Music’s” Petra earlier) and baritone Korin Gregory Thomas-Smith got the sound and the rhythm of the music. The others sounded, well, operatic.
Setting the tone first, we heard the voice of Jan DeGaetani, a beloved mid-20th-century mezzo-soprano who sang in the great opera houses and taught and performed at the Aspen Music Festival, in Stephen Foster’s “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” on a recording (with Gilbert Kalish on piano). Her unforced tone and graceful phrasing would prove hard to match.
But Thomas-Smith bounded onstage and sang Foster’s “Ring, Ring the Banjo” with flair, throwing in a few dance steps, even clicking his heels athletically. Thomas-Smith brought luster to Scott Joplin’s “We’re Going Around” (from the ragtime opera “Treemonisha”), and played the roles equally gracefully in such songs as Irving Berlin’s “It’s a Lovely Day,” Vernon Duke’s “I Like the Likes of You” and Lerner and Loewe’s “If ever I Would Leave You.”
Menke, for her part, lent sassy swing to Berlin’s “Something to Dance About” and sweetness to Berlin’s “You’re Just in Love.” She dazzled with two Cole Porter tunes — “Red, Hot and Blue” and a soulful rendering of “So in Love.”
Longtime faculty member Kenneth Merrill underlined the music nicely with his piano work, and his two solos (Vernon Duke’s “April in Paris” and Duke Ellington’s “Solitude”) alluded nicely to their jazz-standard status.
Other songs fell short, with relatively stiff singing on works by John Philip Sousa, Sigmund Romberg and Harold Arlen, but as an ensemble the singers romped cheerfully through a medley of Arlen’s songs for the film “The Wizard of Oz,” especially the women on “Optimistic Voices.” The ensemble encore, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel,” made good use of all the rich tones.
Wednesday’s American Brass Quintet recital filled the Harris Hall stage for the final set with all 36 brass students in the group’s seminar project playing pieces the quintet unearthed between 2001 and 2006 attributed to a Moravian brass band in Salem, North Carolina (enlisted in 1862 as the 26th NC Regimental Band). The rich sound of trumpets, horns, trombones, bass trombones and tubas made lively stuff of such tunes as “Ever of Thee,” a sonorous arrangement of the chorale-like “Aux pieds de la Madonne” from Herold’s “Zampa,” and a rousing “Grand Confederate Quickstep” to finish.
The meat of the program presented works written for the quintet between 2006 and 2016. Highlights were Joan Tower’s undulating and brilliant “Copperwave,” now a staple of the quintet’s concerts, and Adam Schoenberg’s emotionally resonant “Reflecting Light.” Both were examples of how varied and complex brass music can be.
NOT TO MISS IN COMING DAYS
Any time Leonard Slatkin comes to Aspen to conduct, it’s a don’t-miss thing. His Aspen Festival Orchestra program Sunday afternoon in the tent ranges from a fun miniature by a Colorado composer to the Aspen debut of the brilliant South Korean pianist Seong-Jin Cho (playing the Rachmaninov Concerto No. 2, no less), and a Slatkin specialty, Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Monday’s staging of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” in the tent features baritone Nathan Gunn, Broadway star Christy Altomare, singers from the Opera Theater program and Einhorn conducting a 55-piece orchestra.
Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 24 years. His reviews appear Tuesdays and Saturdays in The Aspen Times.
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