Enigma Variations upstage soloists
Four soloists new to Aspen played familiar music this past weekend in the Benedict Music Tent at the Aspen Music Festival, but it took a couple of young conductors to stir things up musically.Russian Veronika Eberle’s well-manicured, polite approach to the famous Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto left an underwhelming impression. American Elmar Oliveira seemed more intent on sawing his fiddle in half than making real music of Brahms’ Violin Concerto. Macedonian pianist Simon Trpceski sailed nicely through Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, but missed the New York swagger that makes it jump. And the biggest name of them all, soprano Kathleen Battle, warbled sweetly at the big benefit concert Saturday but seemed to be on a different planet from the orchestra, well prepared by conductor David Zinman.The 19-year-old Eberle, a sensation in her native Germany, made her U.S. debut Friday with the all-student Aspen Concert Orchestra. Her impeccable technique notwithstanding, she downplayed the violin’s role in this favorite concerto again and again. Her most rewarding moments came in the long, singing strains of the slow second movement. But she and conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya sometimes took several measures to get in sync. And whenever the orchestra got revved up, Eberle’s sweet tone and careful playing reminded me of a rabbit darting between fast-moving cars.The second half of the concert featured Revueltas’ raw-boned, wildly rhythmic La Noche de los Mayas, a suite based on his 1939 film score. Harth-Bedoya led a loud, thrillingly unbuttoned excursion into the wilds of ancient Yucatan. Percussionists lined the entire back of the stage and took Latin-jazz type solos on bongos, xylophone and conch shell (!) in the changing rhythms of the finale. By contrast, the opening piece by Osvaldo Golijov, a tribute to tango master Astor Piazzola, got lost in indistinct rhythms. Another rehearsal or two might have brought it to life better.In Sunday’s Aspen Festival Orchestra concert, 43-year-old English conductor Mark Wigglesworth led a magnificent account of Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Time after time, he chose an ideal tempo, urged just the right amount of thrust, knew when to ease back and when to goose the musicians into lively interjections. The orchestra’s playing reached toward the highest level, with special nods to violist Sabina Thatcher and Eric Kim for their solos.Whether the 40 percent or so of the audience left at intermission did so for early dinner reservations or fear of the dissonances in Webern’s Passacaglia, which opened the second half, they missed a doozy of a performance of the opulently romantic Variations. And a committed account of the pre-atonal Webern, too.Saturday night’s annual benefit concert, which amounted to a pops concert of Gershwin’s music, utilized the Aspen Chamber Orchestra, greatly expanded to fill the stage. Despite some rocky rhythmic coordination at the start, Zinman pulled together a rousing finish for the opening Cuban Overture, and caught a lot more of the jazz elements in Rhapsody in Blue than did pianist Trpceski. Bil Jackson’s opening clarinet solo was downright dirty, and Lou Ranger’s wa-wa muted trumpet went even further. But Trpceski just skipped along with his part, sometimes rushing the beat. He got in all the notes but without much flair.And then, La Battle. Rumors of excess diva behavior aside, she lavished her trademark angelic sound on her six songs (plus one encore), often finishing on an incandescent high note. She also seemed nervous and ill-prepared. She resorted to note cards for the lyrics to “Embraceable You.” Although she took a lot of extra breaths to get through phrases, she seemed to want Zinman to conduct the music slower. She did best with “Summertime,” Clara’s light soprano aria from Porgy and Bess, than with “I Loves You Porgy,” the more dramatic soprano Bess’ big moment, despite the benefit of amplification for the latter. (It was turned on after “Summertime.”) But she invested nothing beyond generic interpretations to all the music, not even the comedy song “By Strauss,” the wistful “Someone to Watch Over Me,” nor the zippy encore, “I Got Rhythm.”In the end, the highlight of the evening was Robert Russell Bennett’s Symphonic Picture from Porgy and Bess, which closed the show with terrific energy and the orchestra’s best playing of the night.Almost lost in the shuffle of these spotlighted events, Saturday afternoon’s chamber music concert in Harris Hall offered a lively program. It had the familiar in violinist Cho-Liang Lin and pianist Joseph Kalichstein investing Beethoven’s “Spring” Sonata with thoughtful interpretation, and the radical in Aribert Reimann’s jarringly dissonant transitions between his transcriptions for string quartet and soprano of 10 short, tuneful Mendelssohn songs. Soprano Courtney Huffman sang them prettily and the Kailas String Quartet provided support.But the highlights of the concert were cellist Anthony Elliott’s heart-stopping solo work in Michael Daugherty’s “Jackie’s Song,” from his opera about Jacqueline Kennedy, and a delightful romp through Peter Schickele’s jazz-tinged Quartet that feature clarinetist Ted Oien, violinist Carole Cowan, cellist William Grubb and pianist Virginia Weckstrom.Not to miss this weekLeon Fleisher brings his wealth of musical knowledge to bear on a program of Bach to Stravinsky, finishing with Chopin, on Wednesday at Harris Hall.Who knows what bassists Edgar Meyer and Christian McBride will play in their recital Thursday evening in Harris Hall? They’ll probably improvise something great onstage. Feel the excitement.Any performance of a Mahler symphony is an Event with a capital “E.” Couple the Sixth Symphony with conductor James Conlon and some orchestral songs sung by mezzo soprano Kristine Jepson, and it could be a highlight of the summer.Harvey Steiman’s weekly commentary about the Aspen Music Festival is founded in 14 years of attendance and a background as a professional critic.
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