Chamber music in Harris Hall proves to be best of the week
In a week that featured such big-name stars as the Emerson Quartet, violinist Gil Shaham and composer-conductor John WIlliams, that old fox Leon Fleisher provided the most memorable music.Fleisher took a full house at the Benedict Music Tent on a remarkable journey through Beethoven’s final piano concerto Friday evening, one that not only rode the grand arc of the music’s momentum but stopped to relish every detail along the way. Time after time, Fleisher gave us magical moments. The opening cadenza emerged from the orchestra’s first chord organically, like sunlight piercing a dissipating cloud. He sprinkled pianissimo triplets that seemed to pop out of the air like twinkling stars over the orchestra’s quiet restatement of the opening themes.It wasn’t an immaculate performance. It’s impossible not to be reminded of Fleisher’s 30-year battle with a debilitating illness that robbed him of the use of his right hand. Since 1995, however, he has played music for both hands, and the right hand seems to be getting stronger. Still, the technical challenges of this concerto require some compromises in moments such as sustained trills in the right hand. Fleisher understands the internal architecture of this piece so well that he can mine the rhythmic and harmonic currents that flow through it, grabbing the music’s momentum with a sure hand (either one) and pulling us along with it.Peruvian conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya led the Aspen Chamber Orchestra in a performance that matched well with Fleisher’s approach. Before intermission, Harth-Bedoya balanced the weight of the Beethoven with Ravel’s marvelous music from Ma mére l’oye (Mother Goose), which emerged with all its pointillist colors, and Falla’s energetic suite from El amor brujo (The Love Wizard). Harth-Bedoya caught its rhythmic vitality, especially in the famous Ritual Fire Dance.Like Fleisher, Gil Shaham is an artist whom Aspen audiences have learned to anticipate with relish. Sunday the Israeli-born violinist played two pieces by John Williams, best known for his film scores but an experienced conductor as well, having led the Boston Pops for 13 years. Anyone expecting rousing “Star Wars” music or the achingly lovely melodies of “Schindler’s List” would certainly be surprised by the dense, hard edges of the violin concerto. It dates from 1976, when composers still believed they had to write dissonances to be taken seriously.Treesong, Williams’ other piece on the program, was much more welcoming. Written for Shaham, it evokes a particular metasequoia tree Williams saw on his daily walks in Boston Public Garden. The shimmering sounds, the growls and rumblings in the low winds, and the delicate use of percussion make Treesong a special experience for its orchestral music alone. Shaham gets to spin long, soaring, serene melodies, which plays to his strength.Williams opened the Sunday program with William Walton’s The Wasps overture, with its buzzing strings doing an uncanny imitation of a swarm of the insects and the woodwinds bouncing through the bucolic folk tunes. He finished with three of Holst’s Planets. Anyone missing “Star Wars” got an antecedent to the Storm Troopers march in “Mars” followed by the floating woodwinds of “Venus” but Williams let “Jupiter” tip into vulgarity and never caught the nobility of the big tune, rushing through it.The Saturday afternoon chamber music concert in Harris Hall produced the best music making of the week. An ad hoc quintet made Dvorak’s Piano Quintet in A sing, with strong contributions from violinists Alexander Kerr and Laurie Carney, and cellist Eric Kim. Pianist Anton Nel and violist Sabina Thatcher completed the strong ensemble. On the same program, the American Brass Quintet brought real delicacy to Adam’s Rib, an atmospheric, mesmerizing 10-minute piece by James MacMillan (composer-conductor of the BBC Philharmonic). Flutist Nadine Asine created a serene mood with Takemitsu’s haunting Air.Earlier in the week, the Emerson Quartet once again proved itself among the great interpreters of Shostakovich with a searing performance Thursday in the tent of the composer’s Quartet No. 9. They played Janacek, Debussy, Britten and Brahms with their characteristic accuracy and attention to detail, but the Shostakovich finally delivered something truly exciting. Many of the Emerson’s strengths were on display – a rhythmic pulse that makes a listener’s body move, enviable articulation that lets the most complex passages sound clearly, and the ability to create sounds of beauty or rank ugliness, as the music demands.It was by far the most successful effort in their two concerts, which covered a range of musical styles, rather than focusing on a single composer as they have in the past. To my ears, the Emerson does better when the quartet inhabits a single composer’s world, as in the special projects Aspen has heard in the past.Harvey Steiman’s weekly roundup of impressions and reviews from the Aspen Music Festival are founded in 12 years of attendance and a background as a professional critic.
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