Aspen Music Festival review: Glorious Berlioz Requiem puts an exclamation point on season

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen Music Festival and School

The Aspen Music Festival has delivered some splendid big-performance pieces for final concerts over the years, but it’s been a long time since anything made so completely magnificent an impact as Sunday’s Berlioz Requiem.

It takes an expanded orchestra of more than 150 and even more singers in the chorus to mount this 90-minute-plus extravaganza. Berlioz calls for the brass to array in four groups around the edges of the performance space (originally the chapel at Les Invalides in Paris). And oh, by the way, a heroic tenor needs to caress the tender lines of the Sanctus from high above the audience.

It also takes a conductor who can harness these outsized forces and shape the music into the fervently emotional (dare we say heavenly?) experience that Berlioz had in mind. Music director Robert Spano was up to the task, conducting with admirable clarity and soul. The massed choruses —Seraphic Fire, the Denver-Based Kantorei, and members of the Aspen Opera Theater and VocalARTS — sounded glorious.

It all worked, and it was spellbinding.

If such famous requiems as Verdi’s or Mozart’s grab an audience by the lapels from the first minutes, Berlioz kind of sneaks up on us. The opening pages are somber, and even the Dies Irae begins quietly before it builds, every so gradually, into the moment we’ve all been waiting for. The trumpets, trombones and tubas, arrayed around the side and back of the audience in the 2,000-seat Benedict Music Tent, exploded onto the scene, playing together at first then tossing challenges at each other. At the back of the orchestra, a lineup of 16 timpani, played by six musicians, added to the feverishness.

It’s easy for this section to go awry, but the players pulled it off heroically. The full arsenal of brass and percussion delivered other thrilling moments, but even more impressive were quieter utterances, especially in the Hostias. The eerie combination of trombones at the side of the audience with three flutes in the orchestra came off brilliantly.

These more intimate moments are the heart and soul of this big work. Berlioz uses his huge forces quietly through much of the Requiem, often by unusual combinations of instruments or voices.

What affected me most were the a cappella Quaerens me, which follows the blasts of the Rex tremendae with introspective harmonies from voices alone. Even better was the Offertorium. Subtitled “choir of the souls in purgatory” with the chorus singing quietly on only two notes, the orchestra filled in the picture with a shimmering range of harmonic color in beautiful polyphony.

A close second was the Sanctus, with tenor Zach Borichevsky making the solo line float so beautifully that the echoes from the women’s chorus, like a voice of heaven, felt totally justified. The chorus’ Hosanna developed smoothly into a fugue in the orchestra, played with stately precision.

The final Agnus Dei, which recapitulates music from the Rex tremendae, Requiem and Hostias movements, reached a nicely controlled climax and subsided into softly restful “amen” cadences. It finished with all the timpanists playing pianissimo. It doesn’t get much better than all that.

Before Friday’s Aspen Chamber Orchestra concert, only one debuting guest conductor had sparked anything beyond, “Well, that was OK.” (For the record the exception was John Storgårds, chief conductor of the BBC Orchestra, back in mid July.)

The arrival of Roderick Cox gets a thumbs-up. Winner of the top conducting prize as a student in Aspen in 2013, he led a program that jumped out of the gate with a zingy performance of Györgi Ligeti’s Romanian Concerto, getting all the extra spice in this romp for orchestra, and finished with a  spirited and muscular jaunt through Robert Schumann’s Spring Symphony.

Cox had an advantage with Alisa Weilerstein as soloist in the marquee piece of the evening. In Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto No.1, the soloist never stops for long, which doesn’t even pause between movements. She was her usual thrilling and unpredictable self on the instrument, and Cox wrangled the busy orchestra with elegance and fine balance to let the whole thing sing.

The other soloist on the program, soprano Raven McMillon, invested Handel’s punishing coloratura with finesse in the recently discovered “Gloria.” McMillon made a heavenly 12 minutes of the composer’s early setting of the full Gloria in excelsis Deo liturgical text, backed by minimal strings, organ and continuo.

The other hero on this program was concertmaster Alexander Kerr, who blazed through Ligeti’s rapid-fire solo moments and led the strings in a crisp reading of the Handel, not to mention a delicious moment of give-and-take with the soloist in the cello concerto.

In the final Saturday afternoon chamber music offering of the summer the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble created its own absorbing sound world in a new concerto for violin, preceded by the resurrection of a jaunty piece for clarinet, cello and piano by the all-but-forgotten 19th-century French composer Louise Ferrenc.

The new piece, an Aspen Music Festival co-commission by the ensemble’s director, Donald Crockett, got its debut a few months ago at Oberlin Conservatory, where the violin soloist, David Bowlin, is a professor. Crockett heads the composition department at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music.

Igor Stravinsky once taught at that very school, and there was even a point in the concerto’s first movement that seemed to nod to the violin music in Stravinsky’s “A Soldier’s Tale.” But Crockett’s concerto explores a fascinating range of textures, harmonic and melodic inventiveness that sounded uniquely his own. Dissonances generally avoided the grating edges that made so many of the ensemble’s offerings this summer (programmed by Crockett, the ensemble’s director and regular conductor) hard for some of us to take.

The concerto opened with a long cadenza, usually a chance for a soloist to riff on the tunes and musical gestures we’ve already heard. In this one, the allure was the range of juicy effects Bowlin employed in the best tradition of cadenzas, showing off virtuosity. The 18-piece orchestra sneaked into the background, but by the second movement (Elegy) the band took the wheel as the soloist darted in and out in the relative silences between the ensemble’s utterances.

The third movement, titled “Whistling (in the dark),” made for a spooky interlude, including a haunting duet with concertmaster Nathan Lowry, before the orchestra led the charge in the finale (“Chaconne”). The violin spun more elaborations around an increasingly insistent sequence of chords, until it all faded away to a quiet rumble of thunder from the percussion.

The clarinet trio was its own delight, featuring three Aspen stalwarts. Joaquin Valdepeñas, the Toronto Symphony’s principal clarinet and the regular principal in the Aspen Festival Orchestra, fluttered fleetly on the fast parts and with velvety tone on the soft parts, as pianist Anton Nel and cellist Michael Mermagen zipped along with precision in Ferrenc’s light-hearted, decidedly playful music.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 29 years. This is his final review for this season.