Aspen Music Fest Review: Soprano Schultz soars, cellist Fung impresses
Special to the Aspen Times
Wouldn’t you know that the most magical moment at the Aspen Music Festival so far this summer would involve a piece about summer? At Friday’s Aspen Chamber Orchestra concert, soprano Golda Schultz caressed the vocal line of Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” with such ease and attention to James Agee’s deceptively powerful words that it could bring tears to a receptive listener.
Her creamy soprano sound and pinpoint articulation combined with a sense of freedom that let the music float serenely, and with deceptive simplicity. The setting — a warm, calm evening that could have been the setting in Agee’s poem — also made its impact. The poem’s words of a child reflecting on a languid family gathering sneak up on us and take on extra depth. The music only enhanced that aspect, as Schultz’s voice embraced this combination of nostalgia and human insight.
Benjamin Manis (resident conductor of Houston Grand Opera) could have shaved a decibel or two off the orchestral backup at a few points, but he led a fluid performance that paid off again and again. In the final pages of the score the orchestra framed Schultz’s serenely floating high notes. Throughout, the South African soprano’s delivery channeled the flavors of small-town America beautifully.
To open the concert Schultz shaped the offbeat musical lines of Stravinsky’s delicious neo-classical opera “The Rake’s Progress” into a masterful performance of Ann Truelove’s aria. She traced the piece’s emotional path and finished with a radiant, brilliantly held high C.
Manis led the orchestra capably through all this and also with a finely shaded “Mother Goose Suite” by Ravel that capped the concert of easy-to-grasp music written since the dawn of the 20th century. The newest work on the program, Brazilian Clarice Assad’s “Sin Fronteras,” blurs the distinction among music of various cultures of the Americas. The mashup of various types of syncopated dance music had its charms, even if Manis and the orchestra couldn’t quite corral all of its rhythmic energy.
Sunday’s Aspen Festival Orchestra featured the mainstage debut here of cellist Zlatomir Fung. Once a member of the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble, he went on to score a big victory in the International Tchaikovsky Competition, the first American in four decades to win the cello division.
His performance of the composer’s Rococo Variations on Sunday revealed refined playing of the dancing theme and the first few variations. Singing tone, pinpoint pitch and phrasing shaped the slower middle sections, and he finished with brilliantly rapid playing in the finale. A modern encore let him pull out all the virtuoso stops, a reminder of his work with the contemporary ensemble here.
The opener Sunday was a fresh piece from New York composer Jessie Montgomery. Her 12-minute “Coincident Dances” pinballed happily from one style to another, a feast for ears attuned to tricky syncopated Latin, African and jazz rhythms, punchy tunes and hell-bent energy.
Conductor Hugh Wolff, whose regular appearances in Aspen often are standouts, got the orchestral challenges coordinated well in both Montgomery’s and Tchaikovsky’s works. The Schumann Symphony no.2 that followed also hit the right spots. Only the novelty of a zingy new piece and a bright new cellist made the first two pieces more memorable.
Saturday night a special free concert saluted Edward Berkeley, the longtime mainstay of the voice and opera program here who died July 17. The young artists studying with experienced professionals this summer organized it themselves.
Each item in the touching, memorable lineup of 14 individual performances had meaning for Berkeley’s time in Aspen. In a nod to the rivers that converge around the town and the music school’s campus, mezzo-soprano Lauren Decker sang Aaron Copland’s arrangement of “At the River” from “Old American Songs” with rich depth.
Soprano Anne Wright delivered a pure and delicious “Liebst du um Schönheit,” Mahler’s radiant paean to light and love. Soprano Amani Cole-Felder made “This Little Light of Mine” into a soulful prayer, and soprano Yaritz Véliz invested Richard Strauss’ “Allerseelen” with vocal sheen and touching delicacy, about rekindling a lost love of someone departed.
On the male side, countertenor Key’mon Murrah took us to church for a rousing, soulful “My Father Watches Over Me,” his soprano-pitched voice rising to a thrilling finish. Berkeley’s brother asked for “A Simple Song,” from Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass,” as it had been used at their mother’s funeral. Baritone Ricard José Rivera delivered it unpretentiously, and it resonated.
Program pianists Mahour Arabian, Manuel Arellano and Richard Fu added well wrought accompaniments.
Berkeley may have preferred a few up-tempo numbers, and he would have loved the finale. The whole class handed off phrases of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) then cleared the stage for tenor Ricardo Garcia and soprano Sarah Vatour, with Berkeley’s longtime colleague Kenneth Merrill on piano. They begin “Make Our Garden Grow,” Bernstein’s uplifting finale to his opera “Candide.” One by one the rest of the cast walked on stage, and the piece “grew” into a roaring, heartfelt, tear-inducing climax.
The concert was streamed live. The video, now available on the festival’s YouTube channel, includes a prerecorded performance of Richard Strauss’ “Morgen,” performed by the pair now running the voice program: Renée Fleming and Patrick Summers.
NOT TO MISS IN THE COMING DAYS
Always an annual highlight the Percussion Ensemble concert at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday includes a world premiere as it moves to an afternoon slot this year. And, after almost a week off from Beethoven, James Ehnes and Robert McDuffie play sonatas Wednesday and Thursday on their recitals. Another Aspen favorite, Joyce Yang, takes on Liszt’s flashy Piano Concerto No. 1 on Friday’s Aspen Chamber Orchestra program.
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