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A Music Fest homecoming for Gemma New and Tengku Irfan

Alumni conductor and pianist reunite with Aspen Chamber Symphony

Gemma New. Sylvia Elzafon/Courtesy photo
IF YOU GO …

What: Aspen Chamber Symphony with conductor Gemma New and pianist Tengku Irfan

Where: Benedict Music Tent and livestreaming

When: Friday, July 23, 5:30 p.m.

How much: $82

Tickets: aspenmusicfestival.com

More info: Reservations are no longer required for free lawn seating; the program includes a work by Samy Moussa, Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major and Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony

Conductor Gemma New and pianist Tengku Irfan first crossed paths onstage at the Benedict Music Tent eight years ago when both were students at the Aspen Music Festival and School. Now among the leading young lights in the international classical music world, the New Zealand-born conductor and Malaysian soloist are back on the stage as guest artists at the festival.

Irfan will perform Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G with the Aspen Chamber Symphony on Friday evening under New’s baton.

“It’s really nice to see him again after all this time,” New said Wednesday in a talk at Harris Concert Hall before rehearsing with Irfan and the orchestra. “And I loved working with him then.”



They were students during the 2013 season, when Irfan won the festival’s 2013 Piano Concerto Competition and New was a studying in the Aspen Conducting Academy. As the concerto contest winner, Irfan — then just 14 years old — was awarded the opportunity to perform Prokofiev’s Piano Concert No. 2 in the Benedict with the Aspen Conducting Academy Orchestra. New, then 26, conducted the second and third movements.

Irfan, in his four years as a student, was a fixture in the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble.


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Along with the Ravel, the program includes New conducting Beethoven’s overlooked Fourth Symphony and will open with a etude by the contemporary Canadian composer Samy Moussa inspired by the Northern Lights. New describes the Moussa piece as “an atmospheric extravaganza.”

She and festival administrator Asadour Santourian chose the three pieces as a way of exploring darkness and light, New said, in both literal and emotional sense.

“It works very well to have that darkness to begin (with Moussa), and then the lightness of the Ravel and then we see that culminate in the symphony,” New said.

Beethoven’s Fourth is the composer’s least performed symphony and frequently overshadowed by the magisterial Third and Fifth, New noted, arguing for its merits.

“It’s such a light and brilliant symphony,” she said. “But it also has those very dark passages of mysteriousness, especially the beginning is so ambiguous — we don’t know where we’re going.”

Working with living composers, she said, has a clear advantage: she can text Moussa with questions from rehearsal.

“Thank goodness, with phone technology we can get answers,” she said. “I can’t call Beethoven and ask questions.”

New is in her second season as principal guest conductor with Dallas Symphony Orchestra and also serves as music director at the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra in Ontario, earning a reputation as an enthusiastic presence on the podium.

A rising star, this breakthrough summer sees her in three consecutive weeks making her debut as a guest conductor in Aspen, at the Hollywood Bowl with the Los Angeles Philharmonic — leading a double bill of Clara and Robert Schumann orchestral works — and at the Grand Teton Music Festival. Earlier this month, she was one of the experts making a selection for the New York Times multimedia story “5 Minutes That Will Make You Love Symphonies.”

The dynamism and passion often observed in her work onstage, she said, is a natural result of her joy and commitment to working with an orchestra.

“I get the energy from the great music that the musicians are making,” she said. “It’s a lovely relationship. I just get so excited by the beautiful sounds I hear. And by seeing what we can do to make sure everyone’s comfortable and unified, and also free to express their solos and to serve the melody and all the beautiful details that make a strong performance.”

atravers@aspentimes.com


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