Review: Symphony as chamber music, and more delights at Aspen Music Fest |

Review: Symphony as chamber music, and more delights at Aspen Music Fest

Harvey Steiman
Special to the Aspen Times

Transcriptions in classical music live in a sort of limbo. Re-castings of symphonies, concertos, tone poems and songs for chamber music are sniffed at by some purists. The instruments may not be what the composer wrote, but they can let us hear the original ideas with different ears.

Pianist Inon Barnatan, cellist Alisa Weilerstein and percussionist Colin Currie demonstrated exactly that in a remarkably effective metamorphosis of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15. It topped off a quirky recital program Thursday night in Harris Hall.

The composer’s final symphony, which debuted in 1972, trades in its own brand of eccentricity, a riot of biting dissonances cheek-by-jowl with skippy tunes and heart-on-sleeve emotional gestures, brilliantly orchestrated, all leavened by the composer’s snarky humor (including direct quotations of Rossini and Wagner).

Viktor Derevianko’s arrangement, which dates from the 1990s and was recorded memorably in 2005 by Gidon Kremer’s Kremerata Baltica, puts the spotlight on percussion. Indeed since some of the piece’s most memorable moments owe to pings of the glockenspiel, rattlings of the snare drum, and thrums of timpani to accompany the finale’s sly reference to Wagner’s music for “Siegfried’s Death.” A battery of wood block, whips and gong finished the piece’s 45 minutes with clarity rarely achieved in an orchestral setting.

All this was executed with refinement by visiting artist Colin Currie, a soloist famous for championing the music of Steve Reich, and artist-faculty stalwarts Jonathan Haas and Douglas Howard. The percussion made its presence felt more often as seasoning for the melodic and harmonic efforts of Barnatan, Weilerstein and Russian-American violinist Philippe Quint (stepping in at the last moment for Sergey Khachatryan).

Barnatan did most of the heavy lifting — his impressive ability is to coax a range of touches, from slender to grand, bitingly crisp to achingly supple — to approximate the full panoply of Shostakovich’s orchestral color. Barnatan compensated with brilliant pianism. For her part, Weilerstein carried the cello line, which in the first movement’s drops in references to “William Tell” with wit. She opened up moments of expressive lyricism in the slow movement, and generally applied her own star quality to the mix. Quint overcame some early intonation issues to declaim the top line effectively.

To open the program, Barnatan provided the requisite thrust to make Beethoven’s Piano Trio in D major “Ghost” spring to life. Weilerstein and Quint shared a unanimity of purpose with him. In between, anticipating the thread of humor that would run through the Shostakovich, Currie drew on a diversity of tone with mallets from hard to soft, applying jaw-dropping articulation to Norwegian composer Rolf Wallin’s marimba surrealist showpiece, “Realismos Mágicos.”

Wednesday in Harris Hall, the American String Quartet’s annual recital yielded a particularly extroverted performance of big, broad music, impeccably played.

Dvorák’s String Quartet in F major “American” started things off. The quartet relished the pentatonic gestures and folk-like melodies of the first major work to emerge from the Czech composer’s multi-year visit to the U.S. in the 1890s. The players struck a canny balance between these Americanisms and the solidly European form and style of the composer.

A new work from Canadian-born Californian Vivian Fung tested the musicians’ concentration with her String Quartet No. 4 “Insects and Machines,” debuted by this quartet in May and getting only its second performance. Inspired by the sounds of insects that buzzed around her on a walk in Cambodia, Fung merged those sounds with ambient city noise to create a tapestry of buzzing tremolos, shifting rhythms and swooping dynamics. It’s a stream of consciousness that should repay rehearing.

Pianist Anton Nel, whose longtime friendship with individual members of this quartet was cemented by years playing, teaching and walking with them in Aspen, provided a different sort of glue to bring together a rousing performance of Franck’s Piano Quintet in F minor. The pianist, who must be the festival’s busiest performer this year, melded the instrument’s tone and style seamlessly with the quartet’s.

Monday’s chamber music program in Harris Hall included one of the most invigorating half-hours of the season. A thrilling traversal of the Mendelssohn Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor showcased three brilliant musicians who clearly enjoyed making music together of the highest order. Nel, who always seems to be involved when magic like this happens in a chamber music recital, took off at a fast trot with violinist Will Hagen and cellist Andrei Ionita. The excitement never flagged as they spun out Mendelssohn’s endless skein of intricate charm.

This went way beyond three guys showing off their chops, even if Ionita writhed and gestured with his cello like an inspired rock bassist. They made their contributions weave together with secure articulation and intensity through the increasingly embroidered lines of the first two movements and a finale that brimmed with energy. The purest treasure was the brief Scherzo, a prime example of Mendelssohn’s signature “fairy music,” which sparkled like someone sprinkled them all with fairy dust.


If you missed Currie’s mallet work, he’s back in this afternoon’s chamber music program to play Steve Reich’s mesmerizing Mallet Quartet. Laurie Carney and Daniel Avshalamov, half of the American String Quartet, join Paul Kantor for Kodály’s folk-soaked Serenade. Sunday afternoon in the tent Weilerstein is back for the Barber cello concerto as prelude for the Aspen Festival Orchestra’s go at Mahler’s Symphony No. 7. And Monday’s chamber music lineup celebrates American music with a song cycles by John Adams and John Harbison, a flute piece by André Previn and a trumpet blues by David Amram.

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