Review: Powerful Mahler, virtuosic Tchaikovsky enliven an Aspen Must Fest weekend | AspenTimes.com

Review: Powerful Mahler, virtuosic Tchaikovsky enliven an Aspen Must Fest weekend

Harvey Steiman
The Aspen Times

Michelle De Young wasn't even supposed to be on the stage of the Benedict Music Tent on Sunday. Called in because the scheduled mezzo-soprano, Jamie Barton, could not shake a case of laryngitis, there stood De Young before a rapt audience, the outsized Aspen Festival Orchestra whipping up a Mahler storm behind her.

As De Young reached the final stanza of "Abschied" ("Farewell"), the final pages of "Das Lied von der Erde," her rich tone and serene presence cast a magical balm over the fadeout of "Ewig…ewig" ("always…always") against soft, incandescent chords from the orchestra. If you couldn't avoid choking back tears, you weren't alone.

Conductor Patrick Summers, no stranger to matching orchestras to the great singers of the world, brought it all together in this final song of Mahler's hour-long work, written between his eight and ninth symphonies. De Young and tenor Richard Smagur alternated the six songs.

Summers didn't hold back the orchestra for the tenor's songs about debauchery and drunkenness, but the full, rambunctious orchestrations often overwhelmed his hearty tenor. The mezzo's role, to change the tone to something dreamier, let De Young come through with ease and clarity. Overall, the result yielded tremendous excitement.

The concert opened with Bernstein's "Serenade," with Midori applying more introspection than drama to the solo violin part. She favored piano and pianissimo sounds. If audience members on the wings strained to hear her work, those in front of the stage were treated to a sleek and thoughtful performance, especially in the lovely Adagio. Summers kept the orchestra flowing nicely.

Midori's encore, the softly treading Andante from J.S. Bach's Sonata No. 2 in A minor, conjured a contemplative mood.

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The weekend's other featured conductor, Jane Glover, led Friday's Aspen Chamber Orchestra concert with vigor and attention to detail.

Cellist Alisa Weilerstein provided the pivot point with Tchaikovsky's "Variations on a Rococo Theme." The tune, which nods to Mozart, sung sweetly before venturing into the composer's increasingly Romantic developments. The interplay between Weilerstein and Glover's gentle nudges from the orchestra added excitement, and climaxed with a cadenza of breathtaking virtuosity, executed with precision, bravado and perfectly nailed high notes at the far end of the instrument's fingerboard.

For an encore, Weilerstein reprised a highlight from her evening-long marathon of J.S. Bach's unaccompanied suites earlier in the week, the Sarabande from No. 5. It held the audience in silence with her trademark combination of technical brilliance infused with passion.

Glover's smart and ingratiating program may have centered on Tchaikovsky, but Haydn, Mozart and Stravinsky hovered at the edges to lend a delicious edge to an ebullient outing. Glover picked up the Mozart subtext first with a lesser-heard symphony from Mozart's contemporary, Haydn. The Symphony No. 85 "The Queen" got things off to a great start with an irresistible lilt and agile playing.

To launch the second half, the bits of 20th century pungency in Stravinsky's bright and charming arrangement of the Bluebird pas de deux from Tchaikovsky's "The Sleeping Beauty," nicely set up the final work of the evening —an adroit and animated romp through Tchaikovsky's Suite No. 4 in G major that glowed with confidence.

A full house, the first one of the season, packed into Harris Hall on Saturday evening for violinist Gil Shaham's only performance here this summer. Spilling over onto the stage, the audience was treated to the essence of chamber music — the intimate privilege of eavesdropping on musicians playing for each other.

With Shaham and festival music director Robert Spano sharing congratulatory hugs and bowing to one another after each piece on the short (90-minute) program, it was clear these two were having a great time. Shaham demonstrated his usual technical clarity, Spano collaborating on piano.

Shaham's playing in the opening work, J.S. Bach's Violin Sonata No. 3 in E major, while technically clean, didn't even try to evoke a Baroque style, and neither did Spano. The warmth of the slow movements made the best case for Shaham's approach. The Debussy sonata that followed seemed cut from the same cloth, making it into a nice exercise as neither player went for the composer's suppleness and velvety tone.

Their individual styles fit much better with Brahms' Violin Sonata in G major, when the program reached its high point. Shaham's first entrance, barely a whisper, expanded the sound from his Stradivarius in waves until the music opened up into grandeur. The first movement was a study in gathering strength, the Adagio flowing gently, the finale riding increased references to a dotted rhythm first heard in the opening movement to bring the piece to a satisfying conclusion. Despite three curtain calls, there was no encore.

NOT TO MISS IN THE COMING DAYS

Two of the grandest pieces inspired by Paganini's Caprice No. 24 for violin take the spotlight in two separate concerts this week. Pianist Hung-Juan Chen includes Brahms' Variations on a Theme of Paganini in his recital tonight in Harris Hall and pianist Simon Trpceski takes on Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with the Aspen Philharmonic on Wednesday at 6 p.m. in the Tent. On Thursday, mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard joins guitarist Sharon Isbin in an all-Spanish recital in Harris Hall. Most of the pieces were on their 2017 CD "Alma Española."

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

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