Bach ‘Magnificat’ tops Music Festival’s uneven weekday performances

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times
Mezzo-soprano Adja Thomas and conductor Nicholas McGegan in Bach's Magnificat Thursday in Harris Hall.
Diego Redel/Courtesy photo

Conductor Nicholas McGegan has been programming evenings of Baroque music for years at the Aspen Music Festival, usually with an idea toward juxtaposing various composers from the era. This year’s effort, focused on J.S. Bach, culminated in a truly satisfying “Magnificat” that employed a student orchestra and a raft of singers from the festival’s vocal arts program.

The joyful, 30-minute cantata benefited from McGegan’s vivid leadership, drawing lively playing from the orchestra (especially a tangy trio of trumpets up-top sonically) and golden-voiced singing from five personality-rich soloists. The women’s trio of soprano Kresley Figueroa and mezzos Adja Thomas and Hannah Shea created a moment of lyrical bliss in the penultimate aria.

Bass Vinicius Costa and tenor Michael McDermott handled their assigned arias with panache, and the chorus of singers (on the cusp of their careers as soloists) forged a sense of unanimity in the ad-hoc ensemble well-trained by the opera conductor Patrick Summers (who co-helms the voice program here).

Along the way, pianist Awadagin Pratt introduced some very different musical language that struck me as at odds with Bach. First came Jessie Montgomery’s 21st-century “Rounds,” a rondo-form work that spun whirligigs of sound into a startling 15 minutes but made an uncomfortable fit with the rest of the program.

Some of that flavor — louder and more raucous than what we usually hear in Baroque music — also found its way into Pratt’s interpretation of Bach’s “Keyboard Concerto in A major.” Though Pratt can blaze his way through the rapid rhythms with formidable technique, he seemed unconcerned about channeling the music’s refinement, often pounding away. I wonder what Bach might have thought.

Just as exuberant, but more elegant, was violinist Bing Wang’s effort as the soloist in Bach’s “Sinfonia in D.” The six-minute piece, long lost and only recently given an ending at McGegan’s behest, made for an invigorating opener.

After his stellar performance in Ravel’s “Piano Concerto in G” last Sunday, Inon Barnatan returned for a recital on Wednesday to play his own transcription of Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances” (The piece that concluded Sunday’s program). While a piano can’t match the vivid orchestral panorama, it can produce colors of its own and does in this transcription.

As Liszt did effectively in his creative transcriptions of music from Wagner’s operas in the 19th century, Barnatan’s work gives us his insights in what matters. Both composers can choose to highlight different melodic building blocks in the more complex places than we hear in the concert hall. Added piano flourishes can accentuate other elements.

Barnatan based his transcription on a low-fi recording of Sergei’s own run-through for Eugene Ormandy before the premiere in 1940, to show the conductor how the composer wanted it to go. Rachmaninoff’s own transcription of the “Symphonic Dances,” for two pianos, first performed with Vladimir Horowitz at a party in Beverly Hills two years after the premiere, closely followed voicings and details of the symphonic score.

The new single-piano version may not be as broad-beamed in the climaxes as the two-piano version, but it was exciting to hear, and Barnatan played it well. Even better was the encore, Schubert’s “Impromptu in G-flat.” Not so good was Schubert’s “Sonata in A major,” which began the evening, too rough around the edges to execute the pianist’s clearly deep understanding of the score.

Soprano Anna Thompson hears it from Phylicia Rashad as Maria Callas in Terrence McNally’s “Master Class” at the Wheeler on Sunday.
Diego Redel/Courtesy photo

The annual joint venture between the music festival and Theatre Aspen mounted two performances of Terrence McNally’s play “Master Class” at the Wheeler Opera House. It centers on Maria Callas, the opera diva of the 20th century, taking out her pent-up emotional issues on three vocal students. Most effective was the singing by members of the opera and voice program. Soprano Marissa Moultrie rose to the occasion to deliver thrilling Verdi moments in Lady Macbeth’s entrance aria, and Joseph Tancredi unleashed some serious tenor bravado in “Recondita armonia aria from Puccini’s “Tosca.

As a piece of voice work, Phylicia Rashad did well to portray this outsized character, but she acted virtually the entire role with book in hand and eyes too often on the script. This kept us once removed from actually feeling that we might be eavesdropping on a real master class.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music festival for 29 years. His reviews appear Tuesdays and Saturdays in The Aspen Times.

Not to Miss…

It doesn’t get much starrier than the featured soloists Saturday and Sunday night (both in the music tent). On Saturday, Renée Fleming sings highlights from her Grammy Award-winning album Voice of Nature: the Anthropocene with music from Händel to Puts and Barnatan on piano. On Sunday, violin god Augustin Hadelich returns with a concerto written for his unique talents by Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy.

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