Aspen Music School and Festival finishes big for 2018 season |

Aspen Music School and Festival finishes big for 2018 season

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times
Maestro Robert Spano takes a bow with soprano and AMFS alumna Tamara Wilson and bass-baritone Ryan McKinny, who sang selections from Die Walküre at Sunday's season-ending concert at Benedict Music Tent.
Photo courtesy Grittani Creative

Big music from Berlioz and Wagner requiring an outsized orchestra brought the Aspen Music Festival’s regular season to a sonorous close Sunday in the Benedict Music Tent. But the most impressive music came from less massive forces at Friday’s Aspen Chamber Symphony concert.

The Friday program introduced two musical entities to Aspen we should be seeing more — the Florida-based chorale Seraphic Fire and the energetic Chinese-born American conductor Xian Zhang.

Seraphic Fire blazed through a magnificent Mozart Requiem and made a compelling case for music lovers to stick around the festival into next week, when they perform two more concerts. The group has been teaching 40 young voices in a new professional choral institute here, some of whom expanded the group’s 17 voices to provide the necessary heft to fill the tent with gorgeous sound.

Zhang is currently music director of the New Jersey Symphony and principal guest conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. She made an impression with big gestures, clear and precise, that brought out an ideal balance of rigor and flexibility in the music.

In the first performance of this repertory-standard work here in Aspen in decades (artistic director Asadour Santourian reckons it must have been done during a choral program that ran from the early 1970s to mid 1980s), everything clicked. The voices blended seamlessly, and 18 of the chorus members stepped forward individually and in groups to take on the solos, each with remarkably personal sound and presence. The connection with the orchestra, through Zhang, was palpable.

Together they made music that was like plugging Mozart’s score into a high-voltage socket. They made each turn of phrase special, not by blasting away — although climaxes lacked nothing in power — but by shaping rhythm, textures, dynamics and the Catholic Mass text into something that came alive.

(Seraphic Fire sang alone in its Monday program and included a Fauré Requiem with its students in Wednesday’s performance, both at Harris Hall.)

Ravel’s jazzy Piano Concerto in G major opened the concert. Pianist Lise de la Salle could not quite match Zhang’s crisp approach to the music. She played it dutifully rather than soulfully, even in the rollicking finale. The lovely Adagio at the center, which should ooze out of the piano seductively, went by with little effect. Only Ryan Roberts’ English horn solo caught the sinuousness of the tune.

Sunday’s finale fielded an orchestra that included six harps and a rarely heard (around here) contrabass trombone, the latter (played by principal bass trombone John Rojak) adding a distinctive timbre to the trombone quintet and two tubas in the opening work, the final scene of Wagner’s “Die Walküre.”

Music director Robert Spano focused on the marvelous range of sonorities in Wagner’s orchestra for the final confrontation between Wotan and Brünnhilde. Baritone Ryan McKinny and soprano Tamara Wilson, once students at the Aspen Opera Center, demonstrated how they have fashioned major careers with beautifully shaped singing and attention to text. If Spano sometimes allowed the orchestra to step on McKinny’s robust sound, the various themes and leitmotifs got their due.

To usher out the season, Spano spun similarly rich sounds from the stage full of musicians in Berlioz’s colorful “Symphonie fantastique.” Despite heroic efforts by the entire percussion section, the bigger, broader sections lacked the required swagger. The quieter moments shone through beautifully with the individual contributions of each woodwind principal, especially Tamara Winston (English horn).

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 23 years.