Aspen Music Fest ends strong with Alsop’s Stravinsky

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – Conductor Marin Alsop put an exclamation point on the Aspen Music Festival season by whipping up a rip-snorting “Rite of Spring” in Sunday afternoon’s final concert to top off what has been a season of often-exciting and well-played orchestral programs.

This one started with an atmospheric and ultimately powerful “Daphnis et Chloe Suite No. 2” by Ravel. The opening burbles by the woodwinds set the stage for some beautifully clear-headed playing by the orchestra. Dynamics swelled and settled back almost organically, and it all ended with round, shapely final phrases from the brass. Alsop paced it well, and the scenes unfolded with a sense of inevitability.

Stravinsky’s ballet shook up the twentieth century like no other piece of music. “Rite” premiered in 1913, only two years after “Daphnis,” but it opened up a whole other world of jagged rhythms, rattling dissonances and a very different kind of raw sensuality. It packed a huge wallop even today under Alsop’s muscular approach. To hear these two pieces at opposite ends of the same program, both played and conducted so well, underlines just how far Stravinsky pushed the musical frontier.

An odd little collection of Mahler’s songs based on the “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” folk material came between. The first five songs, all written in 1892, mostly involved dying loved ones. The final song, from 1893 – “Das himmlische Leben” – describes “the heavenly life” in prosaic terms but absolutely gorgeous music. It was so good that Mahler lifted it from the Wunderhorn collection and used it to conclude his Symphony No. 4. Soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian could have sung it with more finesse, and Alsop could have drawn a more characteristic Mahler style from the orchestra. Baritone Stephen Powell delivered his songs with similarly straightforward sound. Both were nice, but not quite on target.

The American String Quartet managed to make the music tent feel like an intimate hall in the final chamber music concert of the year Saturday night. Placing the musicians closer to the edge of the stage, the wooden wrap-around background pushed forward as well, made the sound more present, at least from my perch in the second row of the middle back section. All the better to appreciate the nuances of Haydn, Bartok and Schubert.

Bartok’s sixth and final quartet is bathed in sadness. The first three movements start with a slow, doleful melody, but they also brighten up for a quick development in the first, a march in the second and then a kind of burlesque in the third. The finale extends the sad melody through the entire movement, and most performances end with a sense of despair. The ASQ lavished so much beautiful sound and tender playing on this music, however, that it felt more like having a good cry over the death of a loved one while sharing a few jokes and reminiscences. Everyone feels better afterwards.

The gusto and wry humor that went into the third-movement burletta had a lot to do with that. Violinists Peter Winograd and Laurie Carney relished the harmonic clashes in that rollicking music. Violist Daniel Avshalomov strummed his instrument at one point like a guitar. Cellist Wolfram Koessel muffled his tone for an appropriate effect. But the Bartok was the highlight, even on a concert that included finely detailed performances of the “Death and the Maiden” quartet by Schubert and Haydn’s witty Quartet No. 79.

Friday in the tent, things were not so golden. Soloist Leila Josefowicz did her best to bring out the circular logic of Thomas Ades 2005 violin concerto, “Concentric Paths,” but conductor Larry Rachleff seriously misjudged the balances and effectively drowned her out in too many passages.

The entire concert lacked subtlety. The opening Strauss wind serenade never caught its innate charm, and Mozart’s Symphony No. 41, the “Jupiter,” crawled at such a slow pace that it felt leaden. The first movement, marked allegro vivace, felt more like moderato. The minuet galumphed. The finale picked up some pace but faded at the end. Good thing the weekend, and the festival, ended with that explosion from Stravinsky.


Hanukkah has arrived in Aspen

Members of the valley’s Jewish community gathered at the Albright Pavilion at Aspen Meadows Thursday for their second annual menorah lighting ceremony to celebrate and acknowledge the first day of Hanukkah.

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