Review: A varied taste of American classical music at Aspen Music Fest |

Review: A varied taste of American classical music at Aspen Music Fest

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times
The Aspen Music Festival and School.
Courtesy Aspen Music Festival

Three contrasting examples of this summer’s Aspen Music Festival Theme — “Being American,” pieces by American composers in a range of flavors — enlivened Sunday’s Aspen Festival Orchestra concert.

The American pieces framed a nice performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major. An alum of the festival’s school who has made her career so far in Europe, soloist Esther Yoo played with precision and deftness, if not quite the stirring drama that permeates Tchaikovsky’s score. Conductor Christian Macelaru, also an Aspen alum, drew carefully balanced playing from the orchestra, especially in the slow movement when members of the woodwind section took turns metaphorically dancing with the soloist.

The range of American music made the biggest impact.

The sound of the afternoon’s final piece, Copland’s Four Dance Episodes from “Rodeo,” probably defines American music for most of us. Under Macelaru’s vital conducting, Copland’s treatment of cowboy songs and folk rhythms seemed to distill our musical culture, ending with a rousing hoedown.

American-born Gunther Schuller brought his classical music training to bear on jazz in the 1950s. So did Gershwin before him, but as Schuller carved out a career in both genres he developed more sting to his harmonic and melodic palette. Three short pieces from his “Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee,” from 1959, opened the concert, the third of which broke into full-on hard-edged jazz, and well-played.

Jake Heggie, who emerged in this century as a composer of vivid art songs and oft-performed operas, represents another aspect of American music. Macelaru’s own 20-minute compilation of segments from the opera “Moby-Dick” demonstrated the composer’s keen ear for orchestral scene-painting a la Richard Strauss and command of emotional triggers a la Benjamin Britten, but clearly dressed in American clothing. Having conducted the opera’s premiere, Macelaru led the orchestra in a performance that made a case for all this, and impressively. You could smell the ocean breeze in the beginning and feel the presence of the great white whale in the final measures, while outlining all along the central message: obsession.

Saturday’s chamber music offerings in Harris Hall offered different kinds of contrasts. In a highlight of the afternoon program, Copland’s music for four Emily Dickinson poems found soprano Jessica Niles and pianist Charles Prestinary caressing the inner beauty of both the music and poetry.

Then the ageless violinist Sylvia Rosenberg, surrounding herself with three old friends — Michael Mermagen on cello, James Dunham on viola and Anton Nel on piano — gave us a glimpse into what chamber music is all about. They played Mozart’s Piano Quartet in E-flat major as if they were gathered in a living room, relishing the music they made together. We got to eavesdrop, and we could only be grateful.

British composer Philip Cashian’s “Leonora Pictures” opened the program with a series of brief, pointillistic impressions of modern art, ably played by the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble with Timothy Weiss conducting and Abigail Ensle featured on harp. Equally tart, but much briefer and funnier, Schnittke’s “Moz-Art” finished the afternoon, ribbing Mozart from a 20th-century perspective, violinists Almita Vamos and Espen Lilleslåtten aiding and abetting. Earlier, violinist Renata Araldo joined Vamos for a deliciously sweet suite showing the lyrical side of Shostakovich.

Saturday evening’s recital introduced pianist George Li to Aspen audiences with a performance high on energy, often at the expense of subtlety.

Li can play anything, and he’ll apply those talents to making soft arpeggios bubble up like a mountain spring or goosing the music into ever-faster tempos. Beethoven’s 32 Variations on an Original Theme in C minor showcased every aspect of his formidable technique. The Piano Sonata No. 21 in C major “Waldstein” took off in a frenzy and let up only for the brief Adagio that separated the two outer movements. The Allegretto Moderato of the finale felt more like vivace — thrilling to hear, but so many details never registered.

The all-Schumann second half started with the composer’s three-minute “Prophet Bird,” which proved how persuasive his playing can be when it has a chance to breathe, before he launched immediately into “Carnaval.” Li took the 20 scenes as opportunities to show off his pianistic virtuosity. If he hadn’t taken every forte as a signal to amp it up to fortissimo (and fairly clangy ones at that), the results might have better resembled what Schumann was after.

Of the two encores, a breathless race through Liszt’s “La Campanella” allowed for some real delicacy to shine through the sheer velocity.

What to say about Friday’s Aspen Chamber Symphony concert? The five-minute opener, a luminous performance of Alan Hohvaness’ “Prayer of St. Gregory,” was the best thing on the program. The solo trumpet, Stuart Stephenson, pierced a soft carpet of resonant chords with clear and fervent playing.

What followed was not the orchestra’s finest hour. In the Barber violin concerto, music director Robert Spano let the orchestra overwhelm the slender sound of the soloist, Stefan Jackiw, who played the piece artfully, at least what we could hear of it. The saving graces were Jackiw’s lyrical fluency and a ravishing oboe solo in the slow movement by Mingjia Liu, principal of the San Francisco Opera. In the rapid-fire moto perpetuo finale, the orchestra’s rhythmic interjections also lacked crispness.

Jackiw did not play an encore. One wag suggested he should play the finale again, this time without the orchestra so we could hear him.

Even worse, the Schumann symphony in the second half plodded ponderously in a lifeless performance. It must have been a heavy winter, because the music’s “spring” thaw seemed to take forever. What the program listed at 30 minutes took 36 minutes to play.


The American Brass Quintet always peppers its tasty programs with contemporary pieces by American composers, and its Wednesday annual recital in Harris Hall is no exception. Singers from the Opera Center take on American song from Stephen Foster to Duke Ellington and Rodgers and Hammerstein in Thursday’s “Red, Hot and Blue” in Harris Hall. There’s even a little more American music on Friday’s Chamber Symphony concert with Charles Ives’ haunting “Unanswered Question” opening the tent program.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 24 years. His reviews appear Tuesdays and Saturdays in The Aspen Times.