Review: Far-ranging orchestra programs mark the weekend at Aspen Music Fest

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

Artists new to Aspen are making a splash this year, and the list keeps growing.

On Friday, conductor Courtney Lewis led the Aspen Chamber Orchestra in persuasive performances of Ives, Beethoven and a charming rarity by the Swiss composer Frank Martin. On Sunday, Seong-Jin Cho, the Korean pianist who has been creating buzz since he won the Chopin International competition in 2015, executed the piano part of the familiar Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 2 with precision and restraint.

Both concerts were among the best of the season so far, and both Aspen newbies had help from regulars. Most notably on Sunday it was conductor Leonard Slatkin, whose history with Aspen goes back to 1964 as a student. His regular appearances here have been memorable, and this one demonstrated how a conductor can bring things together for memorable music-making.

First Slatkin spoke of his long history with this music festival, the diversity represented in the participants and how their intent on the music can give us all a collective refuge from the challenges of the world around us. He then opened the program with Colorado-born composer Conor Abbott Brown’s “How to Relax With Origami,” a deceptively carefree title for a piece bubbling with dark undertones and sharp humor.

Having conducted the world premiere in 2017 in Detroit, where he was the orchestra’s music director, Slatkin brought Brown’s cheeky seven short scenes to life with swagger. Dissonance contrasted with skippy little tunes (and a brief but funny sledgehammer war in the percussion section).

In the concerto Cho started out strong, building intensity and power with ringing chords in the opening pages, then settled into carefully shaped playing through the rest of the score. He avoided excess flamboyance of tradition interpretations — as the composer did in his performances — but Cho’s efforts to rein things in came at the expense of diminishing Rachmaninoff’s Russian flavor. Some of the many details in the piano part went missing.

The slow movement was best, when Cho’s interplay with flutist Brook Ferguson and clarinetist Joaquin Valdepeñas flowed smoothly. In the turmoil of the outer movements, Cho’s unwillingness to let ’er rip seemed to spur Slatkin to encourage the orchestra to cut loose at climaxes. He usually avoided covering Cho’s careful workings, and if sometimes it overshadowed the piano the overall effect was uplifting. The work got a standing ovation.

Cho seemed more at home in his encore, Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp minor. The minor-key tune emerged through exquisitely balanced filigrees and trills, creating four minutes of sheer beauty.

Slatkin concluded the concert with a magnificent performance of one of his signature pieces, Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations. A depth of understanding from all hands combined with clarity and shifting expressiveness. Slatkin brought out details of the score not always heard in live performance — overlapping lines, counter melodies, unexpected balances — which made for a fresh and vital half-hour. Crisp playing overall, and solo moments from principal violist Choong-Jin Chang, cellist Eric Kim and Valdepeñas were standouts.

The centerpiece was, as always, the noble “Nimrod” variation. The slowdown and quieting at the end of the graceful variation that preceded it allowed a moment to breathe before the Adagio began at a whisper. Slatkin and the orchestra let the sound blossom and the nobility intensify to a sumptuous climax before subsiding gently. It’s hard to avoid a catch in the throat when it’s played that beautifully.

On Friday, the outstanding veterans were harpist Anneleen Lenaerts, pianist Anton Nel and harpsichordist Jory Vinikour in Martin’s “Petite symphonie concertante,” essentially a triple concerto for those instruments with strings.

Martin’s work softens the harmonies of 12-tone music and uses the unusual combination of instruments to create a sound that might have inspired the soundtrack for the “Addams Family” TV show. The harpsichord rattles against a string orchestra and the richer sound of piano and harp. Some of the musical segments pick up a jaunty rhythm. The swirl of sounds never lost its fascination. In the central slow section the three soloists have a long moment all to themselves, and they seemed to enjoy reinventing chamber music right before our ears, a unanimity of approach among them creating finely intertwined lines.

Lewis, once assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic and currently music director of the fast-rising Jacksonville Symphony, opened Friday’s concert with subtly shaped work in Charles Ives’ short, moody “The Unanswered Question.” He laid down a bare murmur of strings for principal trumpet Edward Stephenson’s offstage statements of the question and a quartet of flutists in the chorus wing above the stage chattering their quarreling responses.

After intermission, the relatively brief 90-minute program concluded with a juicy performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2. Lewis kept the rhythms light on their feet and the phrasing cogent. The opening movement made its point without fuss or bombast, the slow movement kept momentum alive without rushing, and the Scherzo tossed the ball back and forth among the sections with welcome unanimity of purpose.

The finale took off at a rapid clip and dropped no apparent notes in keeping the pace — and clarity of playing — vibrant and spicy. Even the shifts into more lyrical playing kept things moving forward, completing a refreshingly zippy concert.


In its annual Aspen recital Wednesday the American String quartet fudges slightly on the “American” theme, programming Dvorák’s “American” String Quartet and a new piece by Canadian composer Vivian Fung, “Insects and Machines.” Star cellist Alisa Weilerstein shares the stage Thursday with pianist Inon Barnatan, violinist Philippe Quint and three percussionists in an intriguing arrangemenet of Shostakovich’s spooky Symphony No. 15. Barnatan returns for Friday’s Aspen Chamber Orchestra concert to play Barber’s piano concerto.

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