Review: Musical world tours find some rewarding destinations

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times

Music that stretches geographic boundaries played big roles in two delicious concerts in Harris Hall this week. On Monday, Lise de la Salle’s recital covered music inspired by dance by composers on three continents, and on Thursday conductor Nicholas McGegan took a full house in the 550-seat concert hall on a whirlwind tour of Baroque music that nodded to exotic locations from China to Mississippi.

McGegan always injects some fun into his beloved Baroque music, and for the second half of this year’s Baroque concert he assembled a suite of 14 short pieces of dizzying variety, none exceeding four minutes. Little-known composers fit cheek-by-jowl with the likes of Rameau and Telemann. And even they were represented by music that referenced locations as far afield as Ireland, China and Mississippi.

Mind you, little of this music was what we today would call authentic. Instead, it was a treat to hear what Rameau, for one example, conjured as Chinese melodies in excerpts from his Les Paladins and Inca tunes in Les Indies galantes. Bird’s idea of “Oriental Miscellany” made for a short but juicy virtuosic suite played with panache by harpsichordist Jacob Dassa.

An ad hoc 29-piece orchestra, led by Robert Chen (concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony), delivered a grab-bag of sonorities. Some used a full ensemble of strings, harpsichord, woodwinds and brass on modern instruments. Others created more intimate ensembles, including one ravishing interlude of flute, violin, cello and harpsichord.

The highlight of the concert’s first half was to be Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Oboes in D minor played by saxophonists Steven Banks and Jess Gillam, but a visa delay kept Gillam stranded in England. Banks made his soprano saxophone blend smoothly with Elaine Douvas’ always lyrical oboe in a gorgeously rendered performance that topped terrific romps through Vivaldi’s Concerto for Four Violins and Handel’s “Water Music.” Chen and three capable student violinists performed the concerto with virtuosity and beautifully-phrased flair, and in the Handel Quincy Erickson and Linh Him Jerry Mak executed the high-lying trumpet lines with clarity and precision.

If anything, Monday’s piano recital by pianist de la Salle was even more delicious, a nonstop thrill ride of sensitive playing, eye-popping virtuosity, and yes, rhythmic vitality. That’s as it should be, as the music was all about dance, a critical element for classical composers from Bach to Gershwin. What seems have piqued de la Salle’s interest most was the creative and challenging music that happens when creative composers lift their own culture’s vernacular dance music to higher levels.

Thus her 2021 album titled after Gershwin’s “When Do We Dance” led off with jazz-infused works including two transcriptions of improvised performances by seminal jazz pianists. Fats Waller’s stride-piano “Viper’s Drag” and Art Tatum’s elaborations on the fox trot in “Tea for Two” required colossal technique and an ability to make the music swing. She did both, something few classical pianists can achieve.

She put this very American music at the end of the recital as a sort of summation. The program began in her native France with Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales, eight short waltzes that intentionally modernized and re-thought familiar waltz tropes, finishing with a wistful sadness. For comparison, she followed that with an étude in the form of a waltz from another French composer, Saint-Saëns, a study in layering pianism onto the dance.

From there it was on to Hungary, and a collection of short Romanian folk dances by Bartók, their brusque style a contrast to the French complexity.

The difficulty level rose with Skryabin’s Valse in A-flat major and Rachmaninoff’s Polka Italienne. Unfazed, she made them both feel like dances no matter now complex the elaborations got.

The second half got off to a blazing start, starting in Spain with Falla’s Danza ritual del fuego from El amor brujo, in which the lack of a backup orchestra didn’t stop this pianist from getting all of the multi-layered music pointed in the right direction. A concise arrangement of Piazzolla’s seminal nuevo tango “Libertango” could have kept on for twice its four-minute length, in my view, but it achieved the necessary climb to a climax.

Her biggest triumph, to these ears, was the last of three dances by another Argentinian genius, Ginastera. The gaucho-inspired music rumbles like an earthquake before bursting into blisteringly fast rhythms; de la Salle made us hear every note as it lifted us out of our seats.

After all that came Gershwin’s “When Do We Dance” from the all-but-forgotten 1925 show “Tip-Toes.” Even better was the contrast with Bolcom’s incomparably elegant “Graceful Ghost Rag,” rendered with a tender touch.

After the rainstorm of notes in the Waller and Tatum transcriptions, it seemed right to go back to J.S. Bach for the encore — not a dance movement from of the sonatas but the balm of Ferruccio Busoni’s piano transcription of the choral-fantasia “Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesù Christ.” It was sublime.


In a classic Aspen turnabout, the festival found an intriguing substitute when saxophonist Jess Willan was unable to get to Aspen for her recital tonight: violinist Gil Shaham, who will play some Bach and Brahms with the help of music director Robert Spano on piano. Shaham is in town to play the Brahms double concerto on Sunday’s Festival Orchestra program with Sterling Elliott on cello.