Conlon, Griffey, Zirbel do Britten proud; Hahn, Isbin deliver offbeat treats
Festival concert goers got several rare treats this past weekend. In an exhilarating Aspen debut, violinist Hilary Hahn spun pure silver out of the Goldmark Violin Concerto No. 1. Guitarist Sharon Isbin, an Aspen regular, mined Spanish music Saturday for a rewarding recital with mezzo-soprano Gemma Coma-Alabert, who was a student here only last year. And James Conlon topped them both with big-time performances of lesser-heard works from Britten and Shostakovich.A running sub-theme of this year’s festival focuses on a friendship between two of the composing giants of the 20th century, Dmitri Shostakovich and Benjamin Britten. Sunday in the tent, Conlon conducted pieces each composer wrote in 1943, and the Festival Orchestra responded with some of its most passionate playing. Britten’s Serenade, a cycle of six songs, uses nocturnal images to allude to death, and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 8 storms against Stalin’s repression even in the midst of World War II. It could have been depressing, but the performances were so good that it wasn’t.Britten wrote the Serenade for tenor Peter Pears (Britten’s life partner) and hornist Dennis Brain. Anthony Dean Griffey, whose high, clear voice may be closest to Pears’ among today’s tenors, lavished a warm lyric sound on the sinuous lines. John Zirbel, principal horn of the Montreal Symphony and an Aspen faculty artist, played his music with abandon in the solo prologue and epilogue, and with remarkably sensitivity and accuracy in the songs. Conlon’s conducting brought out the vigor and pathos in the various songs, never once stooping to the sentimental.Britten’s Russian Funeral, a short piece for brass and percussion, preceded the Serenade without a pause between. The brass, arrayed across the chorus loft at the back, made it sonorous, and the programming linked the two composers nicely but also setting up the longer piece with something weighty.The Shostakovich 8th is a bear to play, and there are points when it is tough listening, too, but it is Hi-Def music that spans a wide emotional range. Conlon and the outsized orchestra caught the muscular climaxes, the elegaic moments, the nasty parodies and sarcastic wit, ending on a heart-rending moment of resignation.In Friday’s chamber orchestra concert, Hahn brought exquisitely detailed and streamlined silvery sound to a breathtaking account of the concerto by Karl Goldmark. The 26-year-old played with clarity of purpose and depth of ideas far beyond her years, spinning achingly long and seamless melodic arches and articulating complicated runs and turns with deftness. (For an encore, she played the Sarabande from Bach’s Partita No. 2 with unerring precision and grace.)Karl Goldmark was a Czech composer working in Vienna when the Wagnerites and the Brahmsians were fighting for musical supremacy, Goldmark actually took inspiration from both sides. You can also hear the same Czech influences that would later make Dvorák such a favorite. The Goldmark concerto sounds very much like Dvorák meets Wagner.That ain’t bad. The music has an unflagging charm, lively rhythms, and, being written in 1877, falls gratefully upon the ears of those who flee from the likes of Britten and Shostakovich. But it takes a splendid soloist to bring it to life, and Hahn was up to the task.So was conductor John Nelson, who directs a similar-sized orchestra in Paris as his regular job. A hyperactive podium presence, Nelson is given to broad, emphatic gestures, which is fine for modern pieces, such as Schnittke’s comic Moz-Art à la Haydn, which opened the concert. The second-half opener was Colorado composer Daniel Kellogg’s Praegustatum, a gloss on Mozart’s short and gorgeous choral piece, Ave Verum Corpus, in which Mozart’ music emerges from a gauze of hazy dissonance.But Nelson pushed and pulled on some real Mozart, the Symphony No. 41 “Jupiter,” so much that I wondered if it was the same piece I knew. I checked the score, but Mozart does not indicate fluctuations in tempo from quick to very slow every two bars. Mozart also marks the second movement “Andante cantabile”; we should feel some motion but the music should sing. Nelson’s tempo was so fast, the music had no space for singing. The breakneck speed of the finale made many of the strings’ figures smear instead of articulate clearly.Maybe he was trying to make up for lost time. The concert started at 6:10 (very late starts have been distressingly common this summer), and then all of the orchestra’s seating had to be set up after the Schnittke, which was performed standing up, a further 12-minute delay. The concert ended at 8:25.Guitarist Isbin generously shared her recital slot Saturday night in Harris Hall with Coma-Alabert, to the delight of some and consternation of others who expected more guitar. Actually, there was plenty of Isbin’s delicate, soulful solo playing to appreciate, especially Albeniz’ Asturias and Tarrega’s Capricho arabé. She also had long moments alone in Rodrigo’s Aranjuez ma pensée, an arrangement of the slow movement of his famous Concierto de Aranjuez.Coma-Alabert’s Spanish blood infused sets of old Spanish songs, Sephardic songs and Falla’s famous set of six popular songs. Although she lacks a distinctive sound, she brings much expressive and enviable musicianship to the party. The haunting Rodrigo piece was the highlight of a program that could have had more variety. Except for the Falla set, the song cycles suffered from a sameness of musical content. Spanish music has much more range than what we heard.Not to miss this weekThis is a week for international-class soloists, including two appearances each from the volcanic Wagnerian soprano Jane Eaglen, the whiz-bang pianist Lang Lang, and the sublimely musical violinist Julia Fischer. The pianist Steven Hough plays a recital, too.And one ensemble of special note. The American String Quartet’s program Tuesday in Harris includes the monumental C-sharp minor quartet by Beethoven.Harvey Steiman’s weekly commentary about the Aspen Music Festival is founded in 13 years of attendance and a background as a professional critic.