Aspen Music Festival review: ‘Enfant,’ ‘Mermaid’ and an emotional violin recital top the weekend

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times

If this year’s Aspen Music Festival theme of “enchantment” needed any validation, two masterpieces from the early decades provided the proof in excellent orchestra concerts Friday and Sunday in the Benedict Music Tent.

Ravel’s one-act opera “L’enfant et les sortilèges” would be the very definition, what with toys and furniture coming to life to teach an unruly child a little humility, enhanced by the composer’s magical music. Festival music director Robert Spano led the Aspen Chamber Orchestra in a performance of agility and a rainbow of sonic colors while members of the Aspen Opera Center turned a bare stage and a few chairs into an irresistible 6-year-old’s world, singing and acting with consummate charm.

At first I missed seeing an easy chair or a clock turn into a singer, but these young artists’ creative stances and physical attitudes triggered my imagination even more so. And isn’t that what theater can do, especially with Ravel’s marvelous music?

The center’s director, Edward Berkeley, presided over an ever-delighting range of physical moments, as simple as baritone Jarrod Lee’s Grandfather Clock, his arms askew to suggest the broken face, and as humorous as mezzo-soprano Zaray Rodriguez’s Cat (and Lee as an accomplice cat) rubbing up against Spano to annoy the conductor. At one point a whole army of sprightly singers hopping like frogs popped up from the depths of the orchestra as if it were a pond. The chorus, arrayed across the back of the stage, was in constant motion, at one point pairing off to parade like sheep for the sweet pastoral duet of soprano Dorothy Gal (Shepherdess) and mezzo-soprano Isabel Signoret (Shepherd).

As The Child, mezzo-soprano Siena Licht Miller, all pouty and stubborn, laid a strong foundation vocally for the music to come. Soprano Zoe Cristina Bates Johnson invested dazzling coloratura soprano in Fire, the Princess and the Nightingale. Tenor Matt Pearce used vocal effects to create a fussy professor (Arithmetic) and Nicholas Newton used his bulk and resonant bass-baritone to make a menacing Armchair and, later, a grumpy Tree.

It takes a lot to overshadow a Gil Shaham performance, and this was another good one. The violinist invested soul and phenomenal technique in Jonathan Leshnoff’s heartfelt and generously communicative Chamber Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. It was an enormously worthwhile two-part piece, the first slow and contemplative, the second exuberant and dancelike. Leshnoff’s music combined a freshness and crowd-pleasing consonance with unexpected turns of melodic and harmonic direction. Though a thunderstorm intruded upon Ravel’s “Mother Goose” Suite, what I could hear sounded fine and atmospheric.

Sunday’s Aspen Festival Orchestra concert centered on Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Liszt’s showy Piano Concerto No. 2 in A major, which the French pianist and conductor Andrey Boreyko dispatch with plenty of portent and flair. But the rest of the concert had more to chew on. The return of “The Little Mermaid,” Alexander Zemlinsky’s technicolor tone poem on the Hans Christian Anderson story, filled the “enchantment” requirement. An extravaganza of orchestral romanticism, it starts off with descriptive scenes, evocative and consciously pretty, but then, rather than storytelling as in Richard Strauss’ tone poems, Zemlinsky increasingly develops the piece along purely musical lines, like an extended classical overture.

It made for a rewarding second half, contrasting nicely with the afternoon’s opener, Anders Hillborg’s “Cold Heat,” an exploration of orchestral sonorities and overtones in dissonant harmonies. A lithe frame and penchant for “look what I found” moments, wherein groups of instruments create unique and strangely pleasing sounds, softened the edges. All this circulated around pulsing rhythms, often playing slow subterranean movement against bright colors up top.

Saturday evening in Harris Hall violinist Daniel Hope paid tribute to his teacher and mentor, Yehudi Menuhin, one of the true giants of the violin, with music close to Menuhin’s heart. It was a profound, majestically played recital, more along the lines of Hope’s own generous, broad style than Menuhin’s mercurial reach for the unique. Where Menuhin could inject grace and intimacy to the salon music of violinist-composer Georges Enescu, Hope took a direct and more genial approach to the Impromptu Concertant, which started the evening. Elgar’s Violin Sonata, which followed — the composer wrote his violin concerto for Menuhin — took on a stateliness and sumptuousness under Hope’s fingers, abetted beautifully by pianist Anton Nel’s own velvety touch.

The highlight of the concert was an eight-minute meditation, “Kaddisch,” a transcription for violin and piano of Ravel’s original combination of voice and piano. The setting of the Jewish prayer for the dead lets sinuous, exotically filigreed melody emerge with quiet power and soul. It was Hope’s most delicate playing of the evening. Franck’s outsized Violin Sonata in A major casts the piano in the role of a symphony orchestra and builds momentum inexorably to a thrilling finish. These two musical partners let it fly, clearly tuning into the same muscular spirits. Elgar’s disarmingly simple “Salut d’Amour” was the calming encore.

In Saturday afternoon’s chamber music program two recent alumni of the festival’s school brought out the beauty in Schoenberg’s harmonically expressionist (but not atonal) song cycle, “The Book of the Hanging Gardens,” nicely weaving in the sad, romantic subtext. Tenor Spencer Lang and pianist Dan K. Kurland were clearly on the same page philosophically, focusing on the harmonic richness, emphasizing any suppleness they could find as the composer’s melodies skewed. It was a riveting performance.

The Contemporary Ensemble’s raucous go at Andrew Norman’s 2011 Try had two percussionists almost comically juggling a dozen instruments each, but then Anneleen Lenaerts made a Fauré showpiece glow with just two hands on a harp. Violinist Alexander Kerr and cellist Desmond Hoebig brought out the latent harmonic tang in Ravel’s spare duo, Sonata for Violin and Cello, putting a lovely cap on the afternoon.


The vocal side is heating up, with Michelle de Young singing Wagner’s Rückert Lieder tonight, Renée Fleming’s master class Thursday afternoon (both in Harris Hall) and baritone André Schuen singing Mahler’s “Songs of a Wayfarer” in Friday evening’s Chamber Symphony lineup. Kerr sits in for second violin Sibbi Bernhardson in the Pacifica Quartet’s Wednesday program of Haydn, Schoenberg and Beethoven. On Thursday evening Gil Shaham and Adele Anthony offer an eclectic program of solos, duos and a finale for a dozen fiddles.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 23 years. His reviews appear in The Aspen Times on Tuesdays and Saturdays.