Review: Music from Spain sparks Aspen Music Festival performances |

Review: Music from Spain sparks Aspen Music Festival performances

Harvey Steiman
Special to the Aspen Times

Spanish music inspired some of the best moments this week at the Aspen Music Festival, topped off by Sharon Isbin’s all-Spanish guitar program Thursday in Harris Hall.

Isabel Leonard became the second internationally renowned mezzo-soprano in less than a week to be felled by an announced illness. She bowed out of a duo recital with Isbin of Spanish and Latin-American music they had recorded together, so there was no calling another mezzo as happened Sunday. Isbin substituted a charming program of mostly Spanish guitar music and plucked superb cellist Brinton Smith from the festival’s faculty to play an existing cello version of one of the song sets Leonard was to sing.

Smith injected a serious dose of Iberian vigor into cellist Maurice Maréchal’s arrangement of Manuel de Falla’s “Canciones populares españolas,” making a brilliant pairing with Isbin’s gentle guitar to climax the first half of the recital, a mixture of familiar and unfamiliar works. The antithesis of a big orchestra concert, Isbin’s skills in the relatively quiet world of solo guitar music get an audience leaning forward to catch the nuances of range of sounds that fingering and plucking can produce in the hands of a master.

For me the highlights came with the extra harmonic pungency of Cuban composer Leo Brouwer’s “El decamerón negro,” a four-movement work written for Isbin in 1981, and a final sequence of short dances by Albéniz, Sainz, Lauro and Mangoré. The encore, “Porro,” a lively Colombian tune from the guitarist/composer Gentil Montaña, ended the evening with a smile.

Regular concert-goers might have noticed the extra comparisons artistic advisor Asadour Santourian, responsible for organizing the festival’s programs, has been scheduling. Works by the Spanish composer Manuel de Falla and Spanish-inspired works by Ravel spiced up the Aspen Philharmonic’s program Wednesday. In contrast to Isbin’s relatively tranquil expressiveness, the all-student Philharmonic, under Jun Märkl, reveled in the snappy rhythms of Falla’s suite from “El amor brujo” and Ravel’s colorful orchestrations for “Rapsodie espagnole,” “Alborada del gracioso” and the famous “Bolero” to finish off a lively and happy concert.

Märkl, among the more demonstrative conductors today, physically willed the students into performances of impressive flair, especially in the opening and flamboyant dances of the Falla. “Bolero” got the audience leaping to its feet, almost in relief after a seriously focused build-up in intensity came to a crashing finish.

The centerpiece of that concert was Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,” an expansion for piano and orchestra of the violinist Niccoló Paganini’s Caprice No. 24. That connected with Tuesday’s piano recital, which included Brahms’ variations on the same tune.

With the addition of pianist Simon Trpceski, the Paganini rhapsody skidded outside the lines several times when the soloist veered off at a sightly different tempo from Märkl’s. Too bad, because Trpceski’s playing had all the right expressions of style and touch, and Märkl had the orchestra skipping merrily. When the train did get back on the tracks, it could be exhilarating.

on Tuesday in Harris Hall, pianist Hung-Kuan Chen’s solo performance of Brahms’ “Variations on a Theme of Paganini” sometimes struggled to meet the music’s technical demands. He clearly knew what this piece was about (and Beethoven’s hour-long “33 Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli,” the first half of his program) and his depth of communication surfaced from time to time.

The encore, however, was in his wheelhouse. The contemplative Andante sostenuto from Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat major sailed serenely, with a sunset-like glow.

The week began with the Percussion Ensemble concert Monday in Harris Hall, which is always highly anticipated. There were some delicately etched sounds from French composers, a virtuosic turn on snare drum by the prize-winning percussion student, Toby Grace, and a terrific turn by soprano Lynnesha Crump in George Crumb’s evocative “American Songbook II.”

Highlights included Percy Grainger’s colorful expansion of Debussy’s “Pagodes” for a stage full of percussion instruments. Originally written for piano solo, the extra colors cast the music in a compelling light. Faculty flutist Nadine Asin put the cap on the first half with sensitive playing against André Jolivet’s nervous, kaleidoscopic, surprisingly quiet background sounds in “Suite en concert.”

Grace kicked off the second half with “Tchik,” a tour-de-force on two snare drums that used everything from sticks to mallets to hands to vocalizations in coaxing out a range of sounds, but the evening belonged to Crump. In a riveting performance, her steadfast, focused, emotionally pointed vocalizations of spirituals such as “Steal Away,” “Sit Down, Sister” and “Go Down, Moses” shone through Crumb’s busy, ever-fascinating percussion complexity.


The ever-unpredictable pianist Vladimir Feltsman takes on the popular Grieg concerto in the tent Sunday with the Festival Orchestra under Märkl, the program finishing with Debussy’s “La Mer.” Pianist Lise de Lasalle includes works by Mozart, Ravel, Chopin and barcarolles by Fauré in her recital Tuesday in Harris Hall. A famous French barcarolle appears in Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffman,” opening Tuesday at the Wheeler Opera House with repeats Thursday and Aug. 18.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 23 years. His reviews appear Tuesdays and Saturdays in The Aspen Times.

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