Familiar fare and Fischer provide musical fireworks
ASPEN The Benedict Music Tent was packed Friday to hear what James Conlon and the Aspen Chamber Orchestra would do with Beethoven’s iconic Symphony No. 5 and, with pianist Andres Haefliger, the Piano Concerto No. 3. Perhaps better known for his touch with Mozart, Haefliger approached the Beethoven concerto with more brightness and delicacy than most pianists do. Conlon had the orchestra right with him, lending subtle but vital support throughout. The results were refreshing to hear.The opening pages sidled in stealthily, creating a sense of mystery. Haefliger’s controlled opening scales set the stage for brief bursts of fireworks later in the cadenzas. The second movement Largo felt like a deep, softly flowing river. Haefliger offered the theme with such delicacy it seemed to be wafting in from someplace above. After a seamless transition to the finale, the orchestra and soloist romped through the rondo in perfect step.That sense of unanimity went out of focus for the Fifth Symphony, but despite some ragged moments and imbalances (the low strings were virtually inaudible against the winds and brass in the opening pages of the finale), Conlon whipped up enough energy to make it end in triumph. Again, the slow movement was the best realized, the underlying pulse threatening to burst through the calm, but not quite. Conlon favored quick tempos in the rest of the symphony, and emphasized rhythmic drive over precision.This was a Beethoven Fifth to be savored for its broad strokes more than its details, although on several occasions Conlon was able to get the orchestra to shape phrases artfully. The individual solos, especially in the winds, were handled with panache.Another staple of the repertoire, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, provided the fireworks in Sunday’s Aspen Festival Orchestra concert. Conductor David Zinman chose a stately tempo for the opening brass fanfares, which made them feel weighty rather than fiery and scary. The finale, by contrast, sped by in a blur. The scherzo, in which the strings initiate the proceedings with several pages of deft pizzzicato playing, was especially well done. It all ended in a blaze of glory.Violinist Julia Fischer, who wowed everyone in her debut here last year with Brahms’ Violin Concerto, returned Sunday to play Englishman Nicholas Maw’s 1993 concerto. She was astounding to watch and hear, fearlessly drawing out every sort of sound a violin can make. The high harmonics were especially sweet. The concerto itself was another matter. The generally pleasant music meandered here and there, occasionally reaching an oasis of a gorgeous-sounding moment, but the material between the high points showed too much of a sameness to create much theater.On Thursday, Fischer joined up with pianist Jonathan Gilad and cellist Daniel Mueller-Schott in the tent for trios by Mozart, Beethoven and Mendelssohn. They played with ingratiating grace, perhaps a bit too demurely on the Beethoven Trio in E-flat major. They got a little more unbuttoned to catch the drama in the Mendelssohn Trio No. 2 in C minor, without losing any elegance.In one of the stranger musical matches, violinist Hilary Hahn and rock songwriter and singer Josh Ritter shared the stage Friday for the second installment of the new “Aspen Late” series in Harris Hall. Ritter’s songs have charm and wit. Accompanying himself on electric guitar, he displayed a clear vocal sound and winning stage presence with his half of the program. In contrast to his appealing simplicity and directness, Hahn’s program leaned heavily on complex, finger-busting fiddle showpieces.After he sang the traditional Irish song “The Last Rose of Summer,” she played a showpiece version for solo violin by the 19th century composer violinist Wilhelm Ernst, then added a gentle obbligato to Ritter’s last two songs. A magnificent account of Bach’s Violin Sonata No. 2 in A minor and Ysaye’s Ballade showed that she can contrast amazingly virile sounds with moments of breathtaking delicacy, and do it all with a flourish of technical mastery. All of this was on display in Ernst’s flashy transcription of the Schubert song, “The Earlking.” Ritter added his “The Oak Tree King,” which tells the same story in more direct, modern idiom.The program could have stopped right there and sent everyone home happy, as good as Hahn’s performances of Paganini’s “Caprice No. 24” and Milstein’s “Paganiniana,” and two mutual encores were.First violist Timothy Ying introduced the first half of the Ying Quartet’s program Saturday night in Harris Hall by saying, “We think of these pieces in terms of food.” The opening Ravel Quartet, which folds in Chinese material the composer heard at the Paris Exposition of 1899, was like fusion cuisine, he said, mostly French and little Chinese. Three shorter pieces by Chinese-American composers were all different, “like dim sum,” he said, “a dumpling, a few noodles, maybe something you don’t recognize, but it’s good.”They gave the Ravel an exhilarating edge, keeping the diffuse harmonies from turning too sweet, instead emphasizing rhythms and unearthing dissonances most quartets suppress. The most arresting of the shorter pieces was “Song of the Ch’in” by Zhu Long, an atmospheric 10 minutes that evoked a story about a fisherman on a lake.Beethoven’s Quartet in A minor, which followed intermission, flagged in spots, and intonation got wobbly near the end, but it had its moments. The first half was better.Aspen Opera Theater’s production of Bizet’s “Carmen,” heard Sunday, sagged under a cast that got through it unscathed but missed too many opportunities to bring the music and characters to life. The orchestra played well under conductor Julius Rudel, and the children’s chorus distinguished itself in their first act moment.Not to miss this week:Tuesday, it’s the annual Percussion Ensemble show, always a season highlight. They take on Ellington, Glass and Antheil. Fasten your seat belts.Get an early dinner Wednesday and catch the four winners of the voice competition singing American arias at the Sinfonia concert at 6 p.m., then violinist Robert McDuffie playing Beethoven and Bartok at 8:30 p.m.The final “Aspen Late” of the season features two string quartets – the jazz-oriented Turtle Island and the traditional Ying – Friday at 9 p.m.Guitarist Sharon Isbin ranges from Bach to Latino music in her recital Saturday at 8 p.m.Harvey Steiman’s weekly commentary about the Aspen Music Festival is founded in 14 years of attendance and a background as a professional critic.