Review: Voices lift Aspen Music Fest’s season over the finish line |

Review: Voices lift Aspen Music Fest’s season over the finish line

Harvey Steiman
Special to the Aspen Times
The Aspen Music Festival and School capped off the summer season by performing Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 2, "Resurrection."
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection” guaranteed a big finish to the Aspen Music Festival’s 2019 season. A phalanx of more than 200 musicians Sunday afternoon sent a near-capacity audience in the 2,000-seat Benedict Music Tent into an Aspen evening that was as sunny and comforting as Mahler’s magnificent choral finale.

The Aspen Festival Orchestra, expanded to 133 instrumentalists, took some time to find its focus. Two excellent solo singers, the Colorado Symphony Chorus and the splendid Seraphic Fire professional choir kickstarted the performance for a final 30 minutes of sonic splendor. Until then, conductor Robert Spano seemed more intent on keeping everything on the rails than in bringing out Mahler’s many idiomatic touches.

Mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor applied rich sound and understanding of the text in “Urlicht,” the fourth movement, a setting of Mahler’s song that accepts the inevitability — and restfulness — of death, thus setting the tone for the finale’s exultations. The orchestral background underlays her singing with a hushed expressiveness, the first time the performance really felt like a Mahler symphony.

Perhaps inspired by her singing, the first half of the finale caught the orchestral restlessness as it veered between nicely enunciated brass chorales and sonorous fanfares, prosaic marches that spread through the band, and reminiscences of music from the previous movements. Offstage brass ensembles, including a quartet of horns playing slow fanfares in unison outside the tent, contributed to the color. Midway through, the soft entrance of the chorus made the point that balm was coming. Soprano Mané Galoyan joined O’Connor to weave magic against the chorus and orchestra.

The final 10 minutes exploited the sonorities of an inspired brass section and the interjections of a beautifully poised percussion row. High marks to timpanists Markus Rhoten and Bruce Leafman. Principal percussionist Cynthia Yeh’s bass drum rolls and snicks of switches on the drum’s rim created an underlying dread. It all finished with a mighty sound.

Such a conclusion was hard to see coming for the first three movements. The notes were there, but Mahler’s musical message went missing as gesture after gesture went uninflected. The opening movement veered only slightly from a middle ground, rather than careening through big contrasts of style. The second movement’s “ländler” might have achieved its goals with more of a lilt, and the third movement scherzo, instead of scaring us with a sudden scale descending through the orchestra, thudded to an inglorious conclusion.

Seraphic Fire opened the concert with a lithe and shapely performance of J.S. Bach’s early cantata, “Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit,” which transmits a more compact version of the same message as does Mahler’s symphony. Bracketing the concert with voices proved to be a godsend. Quite literally.

In Friday’s Aspen Chamber Orchestra concert, conductor Christian Arming seemed intent on getting everything to go smoothly. And he did, sometimes at the expense of going for thrills.

Jonathan Biss executed the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor with crystalline tone and firm gestures, and found magic in the largo, which unfolded with unhurried care and expressive control of dynamics. The outer movements bounced along nicely, and Biss’ cadenzas emphasized Beethoven’s eccentricities with flair.

The second half opened with “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler,” festival CEO Alan Fletcher’s piece that debuted here in 2015. The glossy music, well-crafted and sonically engaging, played against an impressionistic black-and-white film by Bill Morrison that obsesses over objects unrolling (like life does, obviously).

There should have been more excitement in Brahms’ Variations on a Theme of Haydn, but Arming set such a slow pace that robbed the music of much of its life. What the program listed at 17 minutes took 21. This piece’s journey offers more of a charge if it’s not taken 10 miles an hour under the speed limit.

Saturday afternoon’s final chamber music program demonstrated how music veered in different directions in two eras. In this case, the Romantic era won.

The contrast between Dvorák’s “Four Romantic Pieces,” sweetly rendered by violinist Sylvia Rosenberg and pianist Anton Nel, showed how far expressiveness developed since Beethoven’s early Quintet for Piano and Winds in E-flat major, played well by pianist Biss and an A-list of faculty regulars.

The winds won the 20th-century comparison, though. Hindemith’s Concert Music for Piano, Brass and Harps, written in 1930 for the Chicago Symphony’s brass section, communicated its harmonic complexity under Per Brevig’s baton. Lukas Foss’ “Time Cycle” (1960) proved to be a relic of an era in which American music was resisting a way out of outré mid-century musical thought. Soprano Esther Heidemann voiced the jagged melodic line ably, but it wasn’t enough to forget Foss’ excesses.

This season’s festival theme (“Being American”) has led to some highlights over the summer, even if programs mostly honored the idea with a token piece and not violinist Robert McDuffie, for whom American music is mother’s milk. Past seasons have delivered revelatory performances of concertos by Barber and Schumann, and Glass’ “American Four Seasons.”

His all-American recital Thursday in Harris Hall started off with something of a throwdown; Augustin Hadelich played Copland’s own violin-and-piano version of the “Hoedown” from his ballet “Rodeo” as an encore at his recital last week. But where Hadelich made it into a fast-paced, dazzling showpiece, McDuffie gave it a distinctly American swagger. Settling into a less frenetic tempo, he relished the rhythms, as if to say, “This …this is American.”

He gave Jay Ungar’s bittersweet tune “Ashokan Farewell” his trademark lyrical touch and followed that with Jascha Heifitz’s violin-and-piano arrangement of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” from Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” that delivered all the swing and flavor of Cab Calloway (if he were a violinist).

Throughout, pianist Derek Wang swung right along with him. Music director Robert Spano assumed the pianist’s role for John Corigliano’s Violin Sonata, an early piece (1964) written before he reached the top tier of today’s composer. Jagged and impulsive, the piece contained plenty to chew on, but it was a mouthful that didn’t quite coalesce as well as his later pieces did. Spano also didn’t quite match McDuffie’s deftness of rhythm.

The second half was devoted to “Appalachian Spring,” in Copland’s original chamber ensemble version. It wasn’t flawless, but with McDuffie and Wang as anchors the student musicians gave it a heartfelt and moving performance.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 25 years.