Chamber music’s return to the tent needs time to settle in

Harvey Steiman
Special to the Aspen Times

Aspen audiences got their first tastes in years of classical recitals in the vast spaces of the Benedict Music Tent this week. The music was top-notch. For this more intimate concert form the venue is going to take some getting accustomed to.

With the 500-seat Harris Hall off limits due to COVID protocols, something gets lost in translation in the vast spaces of the 2,050-seat tent. There was a time when the festival presented chamber music in the tent occasionally. I can recall some extraordinary Dvořák quintets in the old days. But not recently. Harris Hall’s cozy environment lets an audience hear nuances not always audible in a space like the tent. Besides, an audience that would fill Harris Hall looks disappointingly spread-out in the tent.

All this was especially noticeable in the Pacifica Quartet’s delectable program Thursday, when Prokofiev’s brashness outdid subdued quartets by Florence Price and Fanny Mendelssohn.

Violinists Simin Ganatra and Austin Hartman, violist Mark Holloway and cellist Brandon Vamos lavished sensitive playing and generous warmth on Price’s String Quartet No. 1 in G major, a delight to hear now that African-American composers like her are benefiting from a surge in classical music organizations, including the Aspen Music Festival, scheduling her work. The Escher Quartet plays her second quartet later this summer.

Pacifica relished the aching harmonic resolutions and supple melodic exchanges in Price’s gentle flow of folk-inspired themes, treated with musical aplomb that we often associate with Dvořák or Copland. It’s 15 minutes of bliss in the tent, but would have been even better in a cozier environment. Likewise the second work on the program, by Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel. Felix’s sister’s music shares her more famous brother’s extrovert impulses, and the sprightly String Quartet in E-flat major demonstrated a mastery that should keep her music in the mainstream, along with that of other sidelined women of the past.

The final work on the program, Prokofiev’s String Quartet No. 2, returned the focus to folk origins, in this case the sometimes astringent strains of the Caucasus. The musicians shifted gears seamlessly between the pungent harmonies, rustic melodies, and bouncy rhythms, but the highlight was the central Adagio. Based on a Kabardino love song, it was pure Prokofiev expressiveness with a singe.

Marina Piccinini’s flute recital Wednesday charmed on several levels. There was her playing, which blended precision with flair, wrapped in a sense of ease. There was her presence, in a summery red gown to set her apart from her black-and-white-clothed collaborating musicians, all of whom blended musically with her energy. And there was the warmth and ebullience of the music itself.

Her program by design touched on the festival’s themes of women composers and the delayed celebration of Beethoven. Two perky, colorful short works for flute and piano made a bigger impression than Amy Beach’s longer and more serious piece for flute and string quartet. With the fluid and responsive accompaniment of pianist Anton Nel, the danciness of Sofia Gubaidulina’s Allegro Rustico and the sparkle of her Sounds of the Forest, among the often-thorny Russian composer’s more accessible music, made for a winning opening gambit. The plush textures and general languid pace of Amy Beach’s Theme and Variations, the Pacifica String Quartet’s velvety playing, created a sleepy mood.

Beethoven woke things up with the six dance segments of his light-hearted Serenade in D major for a flute-violin-viola trio. The redoubtable Robert Chen (concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony) and Zhenwei Shi (principal viola of the Atlanta Symphony) contributed all the rhythmic bounce and zingy articulation the piece needed to complete Piccinini’s bright picture.

At his Tuesday recital pianist Conrad Tao strode onto the stage and cued up a recording of the popular 1970 Chilean song, ‘¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!’ (which served as a rallying cry for anti-Pinochet leftists) while he set up an iPad holding Rzewski’s music atop the piano. As the cheers on the recording faded, he launched into the piano transcription of the song, and plunged into the hour-long series of variations with appropriate panache.

Once a student at this festival, Tao appears in Aspen every season now. With Rzewski’s monumental piece he took on one of the most challenging twentieth-century works. In its 36 variations Frederick Rzewski’s 1975 ’The People United Will Never Be Defeated!’ presents technical and stylistic tests for the pianist, but cannily assuages moments of crashing dissonances with variations of sheer beauty. When the score got thorny Tao crashed right thought the thicket and came out the other side lilting affectingly with a Latin sway or a blues swing in the next variation. Some variations use effects, here middle-pedal sustains, there a whistled tone sustained by Tao against the melodic line.

The composer divided these variations into six sections, each exploring a musical aspect — rhythmic motifs in the first set, harmonic progressions in the next, melodic fragments in another, with the sixth variation in each group combining elements of the five that preceding it. When the composer sneaks in a reference to other leftist anthems — here the Italian traditional socialist song ‘Bandiera Rossa,’ there the Bertolt Brecht-Hanns Eisler ‘Solidarity Song’ — Tao gave them nice twists.

Tao’s cadenza, left optional by the composer, had its own style, not quite copying Rzewski’s, but providing an enchanting 21st-century bridge to the literal restatement of the song. And yes, as in a good performance of Bach’s ‘Goldberg’ Variations, the return to where we started made it feel like a very different landscape.

At 27 years of age, Tao plays with assurance and a keen understanding of how every musical gesture can affect an audience. If he continues to plat like this, he can keep coming back for a long time.


Julia Bullock’s recital Tuesday distills the essence of the music festival’s efforts to broaden listeners’ horizons beyond classical music’s abundance of works by European men. She sings Rossini, blues, modern works and more with equal intensity and her trademark versatility and impeccable musicianship. Aspen favorites Stefan Jackiw (violin), Alisa Weilstein (cello) and Inon Barnatan (piano) expand upon tomorrow’s triple concerto with more Beethoven—a series of sonatas Thursday. Both concerts are in the tent.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 28 years. His reviews appear Tuesdays and Saturdays in The Aspen Times.